Editorials - 25-05-2021

While the U.S.’s withdrawal will end its ‘forever war’, peace depends on what future steps the country’s stakeholders take

In conflict resolution diplomacy involving multiple stakeholders, sometimes the venue becomes as important as the agenda of peace talks. The fragile Afghanistan peace process has been in disarray as the Washington-desired conference to be hosted by the United Nations in Istanbul, Turkey — earlier scheduled for late April-early May — remains suspended due to the reluctance of Afghan’s Taliban. Turkey had to announce the postponement of talks until the end of Ramzan. Now there is some hope of breaking the impasse as the Taliban have expressed an openness to attend the Istanbul summit with the rider that the final outcome will be achieved in Doha. Although it gives an impression of the Taliban snubbing Turkey, the real issue regarding Afghan peace, however, should be: ‘what’ is to be done, and not ‘who’ does it or ‘how’ it is done.

An American calibration

The Istanbul conference is being calibrated by the Biden administration with its plans to completely withdraw from war-torn Afghanistan. Rejecting the Pentagon’s preference for a conditions-based exit, United States President Joe Biden is insistent on withdrawing the troops on September 11, even without any power-sharing deal between the warring parties.

With the rising level of violence, prospects of negotiating peace in Afghanistan seem bleak. Since the announcement of an exit date, Afghanistan continues to witness deadly attacks across its provinces. For instance, multiple blasts outside a girls school in Kabul recently was the worst terror attack in Afghanistan in a year. However, while adopting a tough posture, the Taliban have nonetheless kept the space open for engagement with the Afghan government. After a long pause in peace talks, they met in Qatar on May 14, the second day of a three-day ceasefire.

Consensus still eludes the Taliban’s real motives. According to conventional wisdom, by indulging in arbitrary acts of violence the Taliban are demonstrating that they are capable of seizing by military force what is not offered to them on the negotiating table. It would, however, be more prudent to believe that there exists a gulf in the views of the field commanders, who would like to wait it out for the U.S. to depart as there is little value in making concessions during the talks, and the Taliban leadership, who may feel the urgency to resuming negotiations than completely abandoning them for fear of losing the international legitimacy they enjoy at the moment.

Pakistan’s emergence

Being the Taliban’s chief patron, Pakistan is the most important player in the Afghan conflict. After months of negotiations, the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed in February 2020, and Pakistan took full credit for it. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden has not set timelines, upping the ante for many stakeholders. As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for almost two decades had kept Washington reliant on Rawalpindi for operational and other support, Pakistan not only treated the U.S. as its geopolitical pawn but also smartly mobilised this factor against India. With the disappearance of this lethal dependence, Pakistan faces an uphill task in conducting a viable Afghan policy. Therefore, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s latest phone call to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken should be seen in this context. Expressing Pakistan’s desire for “close economic cooperation, enhanced regional connectivity and common vision for a peaceful South Asia”, the crux of Mr. Qureshi’s discussion was in laying stress on the need for “responsible withdrawal” of foreign forces, clearly indicating fear of a pyrrhic victory.

No one knows better than Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa that Pakistan cannot keep America invested in his country on military, economic, and societal fronts without partnering with the U.S. to ensure a smooth transition of power in Kabul. But western-backed and Taliban-opposed Kabul government’s relations with Pakistan continue to be characterised by deep hostility and mistrust. Despite a recent goodwill trip to Kabul by Gen. Bajwa, accompanied by the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt.-Gen. Faiz Hameed, to assure the Afghan leadership of Pakistan’s support for an “inclusive power-sharing arrangement”, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has accused Pakistan of running “an organized system of support” for the Afghan Taliban.

Dealing with the President

An essential element of Mr. Biden’s plan is to make Mr. Ghani agree to dissolve his government and set up a new governing system that would include the Taliban, which could finally decide the future distribution of power and changes to the Afghan Constitution. But Mr. Ghani refuses to step down for an interim regime to take over, insisting that a new government should emerge through elections in which he promises not to run. Mr. Ghani is seen as a figure who has deepened divisions among an already fractured Afghan political elite, besides failing miserably to wean the Pashtuns away from the Taliban. Ever since his controversial re-election, rival contenders for power are increasingly attacking his legitimacy, challenging his motivations and grounds of support. On the contrary, the Taliban continues to display a large measure of cohesion, despite reports of its fragmentation. Without an immediate ceasefire, a tough summer awaits the Afghan security forces.

Mr. Ghani could have had his way had Pakistan been the Taliban’s only patron. The Taliban now draw support from a wide variety of regional powers, including Russia, China and Iran. However, these countries too want the insurgent group to moderate its position. China, which has earned notoriety of being the free rider in Afghanistan, seems confused as the American exit looms large. Despite public rhetoric of asking the U.S. to leave, the Chinese policy makers have become more comfortable over the years with America’s military presence in Afghanistan which has suppressed many terrorist groups which threaten China directly or Beijing-friendly regimes in Central Asia.

China and India

Since the need to focus on great-power competition appears to have been factored considerably into Mr. Biden’s decision of strategic retrenchment from Afghanistan, it has serious implications for China; it would leave Beijing vulnerable to its spillover effects particularly in the restive Xinjiang province. That is why China has remained invested in all major regional Afghan-centric negotiations. Though it has a stake in the success of the Istanbul talks, its latest offer of hosting intra-Afghan talks in Beijing will only confound the current contradictions. Nevertheless if all regional frameworks fail to achieve Afghan peace, Beijing will not hesitate in asking for a potential UN intervention, as revealed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

India has been the key regional backer of the Ghani government, supporting an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process. New Delhi rightly fears a Taliban-dominated regime in Kabul might allow Pakistan to dictate Afghanistan’s India policy. That is why India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, has underlined the need for “a genuine double peace” (within and around Afghanistan). But despite being offered a seat at Istanbul at the U.S.’s behest, New Delhi remains a peripheral player. As opportunism and strategic boldness seem to have become the main structuring poles of Afghan conflict resolution diplomacy, India’s policy preference for courting Kabul’s traditional political elite has faced a distinctive drawback; it has no leverage with the Taliban. Hence, there is nothing unethical in exploring the possibility of developing links with the amenable section of the Afghan Taliban.

Finally, India and Pakistan

The strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, China’s growing rivalry with India, and New Delhi’s tense relationship with Islamabad are some of the factors which will certainly affect the situation in Afghanistan as the U.S. leaves the country. Thus, any reduction in tensions between India and Pakistan, irrespective of who plays the mediator, will have an indirect stabilising effect on Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan has a direct stake in the success of peace talks because it is aware of the negative fallout of another cycle of violence in Afghanistan — unconstrained refugee flows and terror attacks inside its territory. It remains to be seen how border fencing along the controversial Durand Line can minimise this negative fallout.

While the September 11 exit would bring the U.S.’s “forever war” to an end, it is unlikely to result in peace if Afghan stakeholders show their utter inability to take the process forward. But If the path of negotiations is either abandoned or accepted half-heartedly, it will be impossible to stop Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and civil war.

Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. He is also a

Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington D.C.

Analysis of excess deaths from the civil registration system spotlights the systematic obfuscation in official statements

By all accounts, the mortality impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptionally large. Crematoria, burial grounds, and, in some places, even riverbeds are full. Tragically, almost everyone has lost at least one person close to them. Given this reality, few people have much faith in official COVID-19 death counts. How many COVID-19 deaths are going uncounted? Could indirect effects of the pandemic, for example through economic distress and disruptions to health care, be contributing to a surge in mortality?

Registration data insights

These key questions, being asked for over a year, are even more pertinent now. In Gujarat, reports of overburdened crematoria and lengthy lists of obituaries indicate a severe crisis. Mortality figures from the civil registration system in Gujarat, reported recently by the Gujarati newspaper,Divya Bhaskar(https://bit.ly/3oNDnjw), provide some insight into the scale of the mortality crisis.

To provide some context, official COVID death-counts largely reflect deaths in hospitals, of patients with confirmed COVID-19, where COVID-19 is listed as a cause of death. Deaths where doctors do not write COVID-19 as a cause of death on the hospital death certificate are missed. Additionally, government “death audit committees” may choose to omit deaths of patients with confirmed COVID-19 from official tolls, citing co-morbidities as the main cause of death. Finally, deaths at home, whether of those who were tested or not, and whether test results were positive or not, are largely missed by the system.

In contrast, India’s civil registration system is supposed to register all deaths — COVID or not, at home or in a hospital. Civil registration has been improving, and across India about 86% of all deaths were registered in 2018. In Gujarat, civil registration is considered to be complete by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India (https://bit.ly/3wt1Ahx).

Divya Bhaskarreported that during a 71-day period between March 1, 2021 and May 10, 2021, there were 1.23 lakh deaths registered in Gujarat. In the corresponding period in 2020, there were around 58,000 registered deaths. This suggests a large increase in mortality in 2021.

Year-wise comparison

However, 2020 was also a pandemic year, and the early days of the pandemic saw a very harsh lockdown. This likely prevented or delayed many deaths from being registered. Considering this, we compared registered deaths in Gujarat in 2021 to estimates of baseline mortality from previous years.

The Sample Registration System, a continuous demographic survey, provides estimates of crude death rates in Gujarat until 2018. For the period 2015-2018, mean crude death rates were 6.075 deaths per 1,000. Taking Gujarat’s projected population in 2021, about 6.98 crore, we would expect about 82,500 deaths in a 71-day period. Using registered deaths between 2015-2018 for this calculation reveals a similar estimate.

The 1.23 lakh registered deaths in Gujarat during March 1-May 10, 2021 were thus 50% higher than expected from baseline estimates. Moreover, the current COVID-19 wave may have caused delays in registration — the scale of the mortality surge could be even greater.

Thus, in a little over two months, there were at least 40,000 “excess deaths” over and above what we expect from previous years’ data. This is around 10 times Gujarat’s official COVID-19 death count during this period of around 4,200 deaths.

The increase in excess mortality mirrors the timing of the rise in recorded COVID-19 deaths, which rose sharply through most of April. This can be seen in thegraphof annualised crude death rates. But we cannot assume that all Gujarat’s excess deaths are COVID-19 deaths. Some may reflect overwhelmed health-care facilities or worsening economic conditions. In fact, there is some evidence for possible indirect effects. TheDivya Bhaskarreport documents that 20% of the deaths that were registered were among people less than 25 years of age. This is an increase in both absolute and relative terms compared to 2018, when about 15% of deaths were below the age of 25. Because young people are less vulnerable to severe COVID-19, and because child mortality is especially sensitive to disruptions in health care, this suggests an increase in indirect mortality.

Even factoring in a possible increase in indirect mortality, the data strongly suggest that the great majority of COVID-19 deaths in the State have gone uncounted. This is consistent with large mismatches observed between numbers of COVID-protocol cremations and recorded COVID-19 deaths.

The work of journalists in Gujarat demonstrates the value of looking at mortality records from civil registration to examine the extent of the crisis. In addition to Gujarat, civil registration is complete in 15 States and Union Territories. Many people work hard to collect this data, and many more wait in government offices to report the deaths of their family members. The least governments can do is to make this data available so that we can better understand the scale of India’s COVID-19 crisis.

Unreliability of official counts

In summary, data from the civil registration system in Gujarat shows large increases in mortality, consistent with multiple accounts of the unreliability of official COVID-19 death reporting in the State. These official death counts are used to make claims about low infection fatality rates and low overall mortality. Analysis of excess deaths from the civil registration system highlights the systematic obfuscation in such official statements.

Ultimately, Gujarat’s civil registration system death counts reinforce what we already know — that an unprecedented tragedy is unfolding. And that the government’s response has been severely lacking.

Aashish Gupta is a PhD candidate in Demography and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.

Murad Banaji is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at Middlesex University London

The scramble by the States is destined to be inequitable and inefficient and portrays lack of coordination

With only 20 million vaccine shots available for the entire month of May for the 600 million people aged 18-44 years in India, many State governments have resorted to floating global tenders for COVID-19 vaccines. This situation is another example of political promises being made without sufficient planning. It also points to a lack of political will to find sustainable solutions; inadequate coordination between States and the Union government; and a focus on optics during a public health emergency of unprecedented magnitude. Each of these is an indictment of the response to the pandemic in India. If not now, when can the Indian state be more responsive and responsible?

Incoherent on all fronts

There are many cons of the Liberalised and Accelerated Phase 3 Strategy of COVID-19 Vaccination, which began on May 1. We discuss them in this article, particularly in view of the scramble among States at the international stage as a result of this strategy.

First, was the new liberalised strategy primarily intended as a fire-fighting measure in view of limited vaccine supply or as a stable, long-term measure? Reducing Central government monopsony can theoretically increase production. However, it is unlikely to manifest quickly enough to aid in successfully preparing for a third wave through vaccination, especially in the presence of limiting factors like reduced raw materials, which the government has itself admitted to. Supplies are projected to achieve substantial levels only by August 2021. However, considering that past announcements of vaccine production have not met the timelines, can we be assured of even that? Without any increase in supplies, expanding eligibility to the 18-44 years age group will only spread vaccines thinly, which makes little epidemiological and operational sense.

If it is intended to be a long-term and stable measure, it would exemplify an imprudent and inequitable vaccination strategy by any nation in the face of an unprecedented national emergency.

Second, uniform vaccine prices for all States can prevent exploitation of possible economies of scale. Leaving prices to an oligopolistic market favours unhealthy competition among States. The new vaccination strategy has now forced States to compete in an unfavourable international market, which negates any success at curbing domestic competition. States will have to procure doses at higher rates than a single national purchaser would. As a result of the new strategy, each vaccine dose will be costlier in India than in any other part of the world, until prices come down substantially. Making State governments pay higher prices for the vaccines essentially increases government expenditure, though the burden now has shifted to the States. Overall, the current approach is destined to be highly inefficient on all fronts for a country that is short of resources. The concomitant inequity is self-explanatory.

The solution is to boldly revisit the policy and use the limited vaccine supply for the adult high-risk and vulnerable group, identified as per the target population. This can be a State-specific decision led by subject experts without interference from the political circle. Don’t give false hopes to the rest, which can only lead to disillusionment, further diminish trust in government promises and compound other problems. Reconsider opening vaccination for the 18-44 years age group in August 2021, when vaccine supply is likely to stabilise. This can be done earlier if adequate supplies become available.

The current scramble by States on the international stage is not only destined to be inequitable and inefficient, but also propagates a discordant image for a country which, until late, boasted of extending humanitarian aid by exporting vaccines. It only behoves the Central government to bear the costs and provide vaccines to the States. However, the bare minimum that the Central government can do now is to coordinate with the States and on behalf of all the willing States, float a single global tender for vaccine procurement. This is unlikely to yield much as most vaccine manufacturers hardly have any spare capacity for the next few months, but a single powerful purchaser is more likely to tip the balance in India’s favour, apart from accomplishing obvious efficiency and equity gains. The benefits of being the single purchaser are not alien to the current government — the Centre’s own flagship healthcare programme, the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, is an exemplar of such benefits.

More specifically, on vaccination, the Centre-State division of labour has traditionally been one where the Centre procures vaccines and the States administer them. It was effective vaccine delivery that helped the state deal with the public health problem of polio. The Central government procured the vaccines and States dealt with delivery. An emergency is the worst hour to abruptly disturb this equation and saddle the States with additional procurement responsibilities. The fact that the federal government has provided vaccines free to all even in the United States, which is a poster child of laissez-faire and arguably, an inspiration behind many of India’s recent health policy pronouncements, should be an eye-opener.

A rights-based approach

Article 21 of the Constitution is often interpreted as embracing the right to health. The rights-based approach in health in operational terms connotes accessibility, availability and affordability, and the significance of these magnifies multifold during an emergency of the proportions we are seeing today.

In recent times, various Indian courts have looked at COVID-19 vaccines and services from a rights-based approach. A health emergency comes largely within the purview of the Central government. It demands that the government act responsibly to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are accessible, available, and affordable. It is never too late to take corrective measures.

Chandrakant Lahariya has done extensive work on the vaccination programme of India, is a public policy and health systems expert and the co-author of ‘Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic’; Soham D. Bhaduri is a health policy expert and Chief Editor of ‘The Indian Practitioner’

Reforming the law is necessary to account for the reporting of historical child sexual abuse

Over the last nine years, India has sought to “protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography” through the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). But POCSO has not been without controversy or deficiency. Recently, the Supreme Court had to injunct an interpretation of ‘skin-to-skin contact’ given by the Bombay High Court. Another fundamental defect of POCSO is its inability to deal with historical cases. With growing international jurisprudence around these issues, and in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, India must revise its legal and procedural methods to deal with historical child sexual abuse.

Historical child sexual abuse

Historical child sexual abuse refers to incidents that are reported late. Historical abuse is not just confined to institutions but also includes intra-familial abuse where it is difficult for the child to report the offence or offender at the earliest point in time. It often takes time for the child to recognise and comprehend the gravity of what transpired and become confident to report the offence. At first glance, this may seem to run counter to the established principle of criminal law: that every act of crime must be reported at the earliest and any delay in filing the complaint dilutes the efficacy of the prosecution’s case.

Provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) prohibit judicial magistrates from taking cognisance of cases beyond a specific time period. Cases involving child sexual abuse not amounting to rape as defined under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and prior to the enactment of POCSO in 2012, would presumably be classified under the lesser, and somewhat frivolous, offence of outraging the modesty of a woman (Section 354 of the IPC). As such, any reporting of an offence, under Section 354 of the IPC, more than three years after the date of incident would be barred by the CrPC. Such a scenario renders historical reporting of child sexual offences which took place before 2012 legally implausible. This presents an insurmountable legal barrier against the registration of historical child sexual offences which took place before 2012.

While the limitation provisions were incorporated into the CrPC to avert delayed prosecution, the circumstances around child sexual abuse cannot and must not be viewed in the same manner as other criminal offences. Therein lies a compelling case to allow delayed reporting and prosecution with regard to incidents of child sexual offences. It is also now understood that delays in reporting sexual abuse after a considerable passage of time from the date of offence may be due to factors such as threats from the perpetrator, fear of public humiliation, and absence of trustworthy confidant. Another theory, proposed by Roland C. Summit, Professor of Psychiatry, is the accommodation syndrome — where the child keeps the abuse as a secret because of the fear that no one will believe the abuse, which leads to accommodative behaviour. As such, with growing research and empirical evidence pointing to behaviour justifying delayed reporting, there is a need to amend the law to balance the rights of the victims and the accused.

One of the major drawbacks of delayed reporting is the lack of evidence to advance prosecution. It is believed that there would be less than 5% chance for gathering direct physical and medical evidence in such cases. India, in particular, suffers from a lack of procedural guidance as to how to prosecute historical cases of child sexual abuse. In contrast, the U.K. has issued detailed Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 to assist the police in such cases.

Need to review the law

Also, in 2018, an online petition based on the plea of a child sexual abuse survivor gathered tremendous support. The survivor-petitioner, Purnima Govindarajulu, had unsuccessfully tried to register a complaint against her abuser after a delay of more than 40 years. After having failed to get traction with the police, she had launched an online campaign to raise awareness. Consequently, the Union Ministry of Law and Justice, at the request of the then Minister for Women and Child Development, clarified that no time limit shall apply for POCSO cases. Though this was a welcome clarification and would help strengthen the POCSO jurisprudence, it still fails to address the plight of children who were victims of sexual abuse before 2012. There is an urgent need to reform and revise our laws to account for various developments such as historical reporting of child sexual abuse. At the very least, the Union government must frame guidelines to direct effective and purposeful prosecution in cases which are not covered by the POCSO.

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is Advocate and Spokesperson, DMK. This article was written with inputs from Sasi Varadharajan, Advocate

The decisions of Muslim voters could contribute to the making of an anti-Hindutva politics

The results of the Assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and earlier Delhi offer insights into the fresh churning in Muslim politics in India owing to the perpetuation of Hindutva politics. When the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) won five seats in the Bihar Assembly election in 2020, some secular voices interpreted it as a reflection of the party’s growing national footprint. They also saw it as a threat to Indian secularism as they saw the party’s advancement as a new trend of Muslims voting for Muslim parties in post-Partition India. But in the recent West Bengal election, AIMIM fielded seven candidates and drew a blank. In Bihar, the AIMIM received just 1.24% of the vote share and in Bengal, only 0.02%.

A persisting myth

In Bengal, it was argued that the Indian Secular Front, formed by Abbas Siddiqui, a cleric of the prominent Furfura Sharif, was going to be a spoiler for the Trinamool Congress by giving an advantage to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, a vast chunk of the Muslim votes went to the Trinamool, including from the traditionally loyal Muslim voters of the Congress and Left parties. Mr. Siddiqui’s party fought 27 seats and managed to win only one. Once again, the myth that Muslim voters are blindly loyal to Maulanas or the clergy was busted.

These results have established once more that Muslim voters are exceptionally politically savvy and secular in their electoral preferences. This myth that Muslim voters are swayed by Maulanas , however, has a long history. It acquired national prominence when the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Abdullah Bukhari, appealed to Muslim voters to vote against Indira Gandhi in 1977. He appealed to voters to vote for her in 1980, which saw her return. Ever since then, nearly all the tall leaders of major ruling parties in New Delhi such as the Gandhis, V.P. Singh, Deve Gowda and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee have given credence to this myth through their gestures. In the 2004 parliamentary election, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Ahmed Bukhari, urged Muslims to vote for the BJP, which backfired. But the myth continues to have its own life, and fatwas are delivered at the behest of various parties.

Politics of counter-polarisation

In Assam and Bengal, Muslim voting behaviour was clearly dictated by the politics of counter-polarisation leading to the closing of ranks among Muslim voters as a response to the politics of polarisation.

In Assam, Muslim voters endorsed the ‘grand alliance’ led by the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front. In Bengal, Muslim voters emulated the Muslim voters in Delhi who chose to abandon the Congress in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) believing that Arvind Kejriwal would demonstrate his secular credentials once elected. However, Mr. Kejriwal’s conduct during the Delhi riots and later has led many to believe that he is anything but a closet secularist. The decision of most Muslim voters to move away from the Congress in Delhi and from the Left and the Congress in Bengal, on the one hand, and stay with the Congress as part of the ‘grand alliance’ in Assam and with the Left in Kerala, on the other, does not imply that they consider the Trinamool or AAP as being more secular than the Left or Congress. In their reasoning of the politics of counter-polarisation, Muslim voters hope to send an unambiguous message that parties like the Congress or the Left, while seeking future alliances, need to factor in the greater threat that Hindutva poses to their security and welfare instead of simply seeking to save their electoral turf. If they do not, they better face decimation.

There is a fair chance that Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh will emulate the voting wisdom of their counterparts in West Bengal. Given the colossal failure of the BJP government in dealing with the second wave of the pandemic, their decisions could contribute to the making of an anti- Hindutva politics.

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

The Centre’s directive to Twitter to remove ‘manipulated media’ tag on posts is illegal

The Government of India’s directive to microblogging platform Twitter that it remove the label ‘manipulated media’ from certain posts shared by functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Union Ministers, has no legal leg to stand on. But it reveals that the Government of India is willing to go to any lengths to empower BJP functionaries to tarnish political opponents and misinform the public. The BJP functionaries circulated on Twitter what they called a ‘toolkit’ prepared by the Congress to disparage the government. The Congress has filed a police complaint that the BJP functionaries forged a document that does not exist. It has also written to Twitter to permanently suspend the accounts of those who circulated the forged documents. There is indeed a document that the Congress prepared on the opportunity costs of the Central Vista project for its internal use. The one circulated by the BJP leaders included additional pages on COVID-19. The BJP has failed to provide the digital footprint, or the copies, of what it calls the COVID-19 toolkit. There is no evidence that the Congress has done anything in the toolkit which was supposedly prepared in May; but the toolkit proposes courses of action that have already happened in April, an analysis by fact-checking platform AltNews has revealed. Toolkits are meant to be about coordinating future actions on social media, and not cataloguing past events. When challenged on facts, a BJP propagandist revealed the identity of a woman who was involved in the Central Vista research, leading to her bullying by cyber mobs.

Twitter has not complied with the Centre’s directive, and at least six handles of BJP functionaries now have posts with the tag ‘manipulated media’. The reasoning behind the directive, in the absence of any legal provision to cite, by the Government of India is baffling. It has argued that the labelling was a “prejudged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency”. By this metric, a private company must allow what it has determined as problematic content, until a state agency concurs. Twitter has a publicised policy that it may label tweets that include media that have been deceptively altered or fabricated. It could use its own mechanism or use third party services to make that determination. Twitter is a private entity whose relationship with users is guided by its terms of services. The IT Act that empowers the government to regulate content does not give it the power to order the removal of a label. Additionally, the government move raises serious concerns regarding arbitrary censorship and transparency. The Centre’s desperation to control any discussion on its failures, and shift the focus on to the Opposition is leading to such situations that embarrass a democracy. Rather than intimidate a private company, the BJP and the Centre should discipline its functionaries into more civility and truthfulness in their engagement with critics.

Puducherry needs a full-fledgedgovernment as coronavirus cases rise

The delay in the formation of the Ministry in Puducherry does not appear to be merely because Chief Minister N. Rangasamy was indisposed for some days. He took charge on May 7 before taking ill; he has now recovered from COVID-19, but there is no word on Cabinet expansion. The delay is a reflection of the uneasy relationship between Mr. Rangasamy’s N.R. Congress, and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been paying special attention to the Union Territory to become a major force. On the face of it, the delay is because of the Chief Minister’s hospitalisation and his home quarantine, which was over on Sunday (May 23). But his illness did not come in the way of the Centre making three BJP members nominated legislators of the Assembly. One reason that is holding up Ministry formation is the BJP’s demand for the Deputy Chief Minister’s post and a few ministerial berths, as stated by Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy, one of the point persons of the BJP for Puducherry. But it was evident that Mr. Rangasamy was not too enthused by the national party’s proposals. A few days before assuming office, he was on record to say that there was no precedent of Puducherry having had a Deputy Chief Minister, but would consider the matter if the Centre created such a post. However hard it may be for him, Mr. Rangasamy has to contend with the reality that the BJP’s strength in the Assembly is just one short of his party’s 10, after the nomination of the three MLAs. Lieutenant Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, on May 21, appointed K. Lakshminarayanan as the pro-tem Speaker of the Assembly, paving the way for the early swearing-in of MLAs.

However, what bothers the people of the Union Territory — it has a population of about 12.5 lakh (2011 Census) — is that there is no full-fledged elected government in place during a raging COVID-19 pandemic. Between May 8, the day after Mr. Rangasamy became Chief Minister, and May 24, the number of active cases went up by 2,250; the total number of active cases stood at 15,835 on Monday. In this period, the toll rose by almost 50% and as on Monday, 1,382 persons have died since the outbreak of the pandemic. Puducherry does need a vibrant and imaginative Health Minister to beat the virus. This is also an opportunity for the N.R. Congress and the BJP to set aside their differences and show that they have genuine concern for the welfare of the people by forming the Council of Ministers at the earliest. This is no time for procrastination.

The Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, to-day [New Delhi, May 24] sounded the DMK in Parliament on a compromise solution for the controversial issue of the use of Hindi nomenclature for Central Ministers. The new proposal mooted by Mrs. Gandhi when she met Mr. K. Manoharan and Mr. Era Sezhian, Leader and Deputy Leader respectively of the DMK Parliamentary Party this afternoon, envisages the use of English nomenclature with Hindi equivalents in Roman script in brackets in Parliamentary documents. The DMK leaders did not commit themselves to the proposal. Mr. Manoharan will consult the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Mr. Karunanidhi, and then convey his party’s reaction to the new proposal. It appears that the DMK leaders had got scent of the compromise move on the use of both Hindi and English terms even in the morning. But at that time their information was that the English nomenclature would be used in brackets. They were opposed to this. The DMK members in both Houses of Parliament to-day raised their voice with all the force at their command against the use of Hindi nomenclature in Roman script in parliamentary papers circulated to-day. To soften their ruffled feelings, the Prime Minister said in the Lok Sabha that she would convene a meeting of Opposition leaders and find a satisfactory solution.

The “Pioneer” gives further details of the riots at Malegaon. For several weeks a dispute has been in progress between Mahomedan Zemindars and their Hindu tenants. The dispute seems to have arisen over the right of begar which the tenants refused to concede having taken an oath that none of them would work for the Zemindars except for wages at prevalent rates. A Zemindar is reported to have beaten a woman for refusing to grind some dhol for him. This led to collision between the tenants and Zemindars and the latter when negotiations failed, apprehending attacks from Hindus after firing a few shots by way of warning which produced no effect, opened fire on the unarmed villagers killing two instantaneously and seriously wounding about fifteen. The mob then dispersed and the Zemindars retired to their houses.