Editorials - 28-05-2021

Given the unity of the Palestinians as well as practical impediments, the solution is not viable

The 11-day fighting between Hamas and Israel, coupled with protests across the Palestinian territories and Israeli cities, has turned the spotlight once again on the Palestine question. The internationally accepted solution to this crisis is the so-called two-state solution. This would mean that an independent, sovereign Palestine state and an independent, sovereign Israeli state would coexist in peace. But on the ground, since the Oslo Accords were signed, there has been little progress on the two-state solution and Israel has only tightened its occupation of Palestine over the years. In a conversation moderated byStanly Johny, Nathan Thrall and A.K. Ramakrishnan discuss the past, present and future of the Palestine question. Edited excerpts:

The most recent phase of the Israel-Palestine crisis was more than the bombing of and rockets from Gaza. There were also protests from the Gaza Strip through the Israeli cities to East Jerusalem and West Bank. How do you look at this development?

Nathan Thrall:This [escalation] was rather different from the escalations that we saw in Gaza in 2014, 2012, 2009 and 2008. The Palestinian citizens of Israel protested in large numbers and they’re being arrested in large numbers today. That is something that occurred during the First Intifada. At the beginning of the Second Intifada, when what Israel calls “the October events” took place, 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed in protests. So, there is a precedent for this. But it did feel different from the escalations of the last decade or so. It sent a clear message to the world and much of the Israeli public that after over 70 years of Israeli policy to fragment the Palestinian people, treat them differently, and subject them to different rules and restrictions, the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian people at large are one.

This is an enormous challenge to the existing paradigm of the international community, the two-state solution. Most of the world has treated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as though it’s more or less a dispute over the occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. The paradigm has been more or less that of a border dispute. But when the Palestinian people come together and show that the Palestinians of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza are just one part of the Palestinian people and this is a national struggle of all the Palestinian people who are still united as one, that paradigm starts to make a lot less sense.

If you look at it from the point of view of the Palestinian people, or from a historical point of view, we can argue that the two-state solution doesn’t make sense. But practically, what do you think can be done?

A.K. Ramakrishnan:What is significant is to recognise that from 1967 onwards, Palestinian territories have been under Israeli control. And that is where the narrative has to change from two entities fighting against each other for a particular piece of land to the very conception of a colonial order. If the reality of the coloniser-colonised equation is recognised, one can think about what solution is possible.

And in addressing that aspect of resolving the conflict, this recognition of the complete control of Israel is the first step. But that’s precisely what is being resisted by the Israeli government. Most of the peace processes that we have seen are mechanisms for postponing any kind of permanent settlement of the issue. So, that’s why there is a dead end to the peace process, because it’s not driving us anywhere towards any acceptable solution.

The two-state solution has been the internationally accepted solution to the problem. But there have been practical impediments such as increasing illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And the very question of contiguous territory for the Palestinians to establish an independent state of their own is not available in a practical sense, because under Israeli occupation, there has been change in the geography of the Palestinian territories over decades. So, practical problems regarding the two-state solution exist, particularly the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees outside the occupied territories and outside historical Palestine.

The whole idea of the Israeli Jewish people and the Palestinian people living together in a democratic state is still treated as a utopia. But what is important is to recognise that the events in the current phase of the conflict are leading to newer thinking and therefore, when one thinks about a solution, one has to take into account the new narratives that are emerging out of newer types of struggles.

The two dominant political factions of the Palestinian side have directly or indirectly accepted the idea of two states. In that context, and given the other challenges, is a one-state solution a utopia?

NT:It’s correct that the main political parties among the Palestinians have supported a two-state solution — de facto in Hamas’s case, but this is the consensus position among Palestinians. Now, it’s important to note that the Palestinian support for a two-state solution does not derive from a vision of what would be most just or most desirable. At the start of the Zionist movement, at the end of the 19th century, the Jews in Palestine made up about 3% of the population in 1882 and Palestinians were the remaining 97%. Over time, we have seen the slow takeover of Palestine and the transformation of it into the land of Israel. Palestinians wouldn’t come up with a solution that would give them a disconnected state without true sovereignty and a mere 22% of their homeland. The two-state solution is based on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 War, but the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded before the 1967 War, the conflict factor was founded before the 1967 War, the project of Palestinian liberation and return of the refugees all precede the 1967 War. So, the roots of the Palestinian national movement are much deeper.

Now, it’s clear that a two-state solution isn’t happening. Even the two-state solution, the more realistic version of it, where the Palestinian state is demilitarised, where Palestinians have tunnels that they can use to go under sub-sovereign Israeli territory in order to reach Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where most of the settlements [in the West Bank and East Jerusalem] will be annexed to Israel, where Gaza and the West Bank are disconnected from one another — even that proposal of the Geneva initiative, made during the Second Intifada, isn’t happening. There’s no two-state solution happening. Everyone recognises that this is the case.

It would take power that the Palestinians currently do not have in order to really bring about any solution. So, the situation we’re looking at now is a continuation of what the human rights organisations have all deemed meets the definition of crime against humanity of apartheid. And really, any alternative to that is a utopia.

So, what does Israel want? Does it want to continue this system of occupation forever? How long will it be able to do it?

AKR:The Israeli government wants not only the status quo of its occupation and its colonial policies to continue, but also expand its control and annex more territories that it occupies. What is preventing it from totally decimating Palestinian life and their resistance is the voices coming not only from the Palestinians within the occupied territories, but also the Palestinians from within the state of Israel; and from across the world. Therefore, the pressure that the Israeli population, both Jews and Arabs, can have on their government to change its policies; the popular pressure on the American government to change its continued strong support for the state of Israel; and international pressure [to restrain Israel] from doing what it is doing against the Palestinians all matter. There are questions on whether states in the international community are ready to accept this reality of day-to-day oppression of a set of people. But within Israel and within the U.S., pressure is much more significant.

Nathan, in your book you have written that Israel has made concessions in the past, but only when it was forced to do so, whether due to international pressure or violent Palestinian resistance. Now, you have a Democratic administration in Washington. Do you see any kind of meaningful pressure coming from the White House, or the liberal flank of the Democratic Party, on Israel, that would force Israel to make some concessions to the Palestinians?

NT:From the White House, I do not see any possibility of real pressure that would result in a true change to the status quo. From the liberal or progressive wing of the Democratic Party, I see a long-term possibility of change. If we’re talking about the present Congress, look at the very simple Bill that doesn’t change U.S. aid to Israel, but simply calls for the U.S. to examine its role in a policy like the detention of Palestinian children. Even something as simple as that, which still isn’t touching aid, which is the really big thing for Democrats, is not realistic in the present Congress and probably not in the next one either. So, it’s a very long road. But the trends in the U.S. do seem to suggest that that constituency is going to grow. And some of the people who are behind it are among the most popular politicians in America, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So, it is possible that we will reach a point in the distant future at which the U.S. can put significant pressure on Israel in the way that it had before. It’s also very important to remember the critical role of the Palestinians in bringing about the pressure — the pressure can’t just come from growing sympathy for Palestinians in Congress or among progressives or internationally.

The Israeli narrative is that it is fighting terror. The Israelis, the Americans and the European Union have all designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation. So, is Hamas actually weakening the greater Palestinian movement or making it stronger?

AKR:If the Palestinian voices have to be heard, we have to recognise the diversity of voices amongst the Palestinians. In the initial days [of the Palestinian resistance], several Palestinian organisations, including Fatah and PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], took the armed struggle as their way of placing the Palestine issue before the international community and to resist Israeli occupation. But then under [PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat’s leadership, the PLO came to the negotiating table, took the diplomatic path. The First Intifada was more or less non-violent. It is in that context that Hamas emerged, in 1987. And Hamas became part of the armed resistance.

The whole point of talking about Hamas as something which is really distinct from other Palestinian entities would not be a good thing to do. Because there is already an attempt to separate the West Bank Palestinians and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Some people even talked about three states. This time, the Palestinian identity is being asserted in a big manner. Therefore, I would view the kind of ideological division between Fatah and Hamas, between various Palestinian organisations, as something that comes up as part of what to do in a very dire condition of occupation. What kind of strategy they have to adopt, or what kind of ideology the Palestinians have to follow is up to them. But this whole narrative of seeing the Palestinians as being divided... they may have differences, but I think on the basic question of liberating Palestine, the question of an independent Palestinian state, the Palestinians are united, and that is the core of the Palestine question.

It would take power that the Palestinians currently do not have in order to really bring about any solution.

Nathan Thrall

Under the Central Vista project, the urban planning for a single, linked cultural district seems to have been tossed out

We have been given to understand from the publicly known plans for the “Central Vista Redevelopment Project”, that the National Museum of India is to occupy what are currently the South Block offices of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of External Affairs, as well as the North Block offices of the Home and Finance Ministries. These buildings were designed by Herbert Baker. The Parliament House building designed by Edwin Lutyens is to be turned into another museum, apparently a ‘museum of democracy’. The national capital could, in that case, potentially have a grand plaza of three extraordinary interconnected museums in the vicinity of the Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. What a spectacular statement they would make to the people of India and the rest of the world.

The problem is that we would have to wait for the North and South Blocks to be emptied for the Museum to move there. The new residences and offices of the Prime Minister and the Vice-President of India are to be positioned at the bottom of Raisina Hill, sandwiching the cultural plaza between the most high security premises in the country. The approach via Rajpath will be closed, and restricted access to this public space is inevitable whenever there is any movement of very important persons.

There was a method to why Lutyens arranged plots for the four cultural buildings on Queensway (Janpath), which intersected strategically at a safe distance away from Rashtrapati Bhavan on Kingsway (Rajpath). Janpath had the plots for the Archaeological Survey of India, the National Museum, the area that later became the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the intellectual repository of India — the National Archives. Together, they formed a cultural district, set within public gardens, an avenue where you looked up Raisina Hill in awe at Rashtrapati Bhavan on the one side, as you looked toward the historic Purana Qila beyond India Gate on the other.

Disaggregation as leitmotif

That kind of vision of urban planning for a single, linked cultural district seems to have been tossed out entirely. The IGNCA can now no longer utilise its open spaces for pavilions welcoming the people of India. It was a fine idea to have the land for the many living cultural traditions of India and their documentation at IGNCA just across the road from the classical or historical art in the National Museum. The educational arm of the Museum, called the National Museum Institute, deemed a University, has already been relocated to Noida while the Archaeological Survey of India’s prized collections have been relegated to Greater Noida. The National Museum’s collections may also have to be split up: some in the Red Fort, some in storage, some awaiting their new home. Disaggregation, rather than unification of India’s cultures and communities seems to be the leitmotif.

The aim of a museum of history, especially one that goes by the title of a National Museum, is to be able to speak to its public and speak to the wider world about the history of India. In the past few decades, redefining a ‘national’ project has become necessary in a world where families and identities are hyphenated. People are Indian while simultaneously belonging to some other part of the world. Speakers of multiple languages, Indians may also be from language groups — Punjabi or Sindhi, Nepali or Bhutia, Tamil or Tibetan — that are spoken by communities split between different countries. Our national identity has never been more this and that. The relocation of our National Museum provides an opportunity to think through its narrative at a decisive moment when India needs to see what it is projecting through its display, and be aware of whom it is leaving out, or relegating to different parts of the city. Aggregation of the differences then, would have been a more advisable approach.

The public’s expectations of what they hope to learn from a visit to a museum is quite different nowadays to the intentions with which museums in India were created. Our history museums on the other hand serve to provide information as deemed appropriate by archaeologists of the early 20th century: with galleries divided into old-fashioned colonial themes such as Buddhist or Hindu art, Islamic art, or, separated by material: painting, bronze and stone for instance, rather than seeing them as historically contemporaneous. Gone are the days when objects could be lined up with the pithiest labels identifying the object’s iconography, its date and the dynasty whose reign it may have been made in. Even history textbooks have moved away from examining the succession of political dynasties to social processes instead. Museums must serve the requirement of telling multiple histories from varied perspectives for diverse audiences.

Handle with care

What does shifting a museum practically mean? The National Museum contains fragile Harappan terracottas, the ashes of the Buddha and sculptures as fine as filigree. At the same time it has sculptures that weigh many tonnes requiring a feat of engineering to shift. There are bronzes: from the iconic “Dancing Girl” to Chola bronzes, coins and more coins of gold, silver, copper and bronze from every epoch of Indian history and precious jewellery that was from the collections of the Nizam of Hyderabad. There are entire walls of painted ancient caves from Chinese Central Asia brought to India by Sir Aurel Stein, and there are grand Egyptian stone statues, and in fact entire wooden chariots from South Indian temples. There are extraordinary Mesoamerican ceramics from the Heeramaneck collection and delicate textiles from every part of South Asia and, not to forget, the endless rare manuscripts and paintings on birch-bark, palm-leaf and paper. The sheer scale of arranging for the packing and moving each of these items will present a logistical nightmare.

Over the years that I was employed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I had the opportunity to observe how aspects of that museum’s award-winning refurbishment were undertaken. The museum immediately employed more qualified conservation personnel and trained its existing staff. Every single object had to have its own special packing case and fragile objects had data loggers within climate-controlled cases. Each object was given a barcode number which was connected to an online location index that allowed curators, the conservators and researchers such as me access to the collections even while they were in storage. More importantly, they allowed the inventory to be safeguarded. Insurance indemnification also demands that every object has its own file documenting its condition at the time of packing to compare it against when it was reopened.

Who will author and assess shifts in the condition of our objects before and after the move? Vacancies for 92 posts at the National Museum had to be closed a couple of years ago because finding qualified specialists in India could not be completed for years on end. As per its own documents, the museum has more than 2,06,000 objects but the official Museums of India website still only has a fraction of the collection on it. If a museum is a repository of our inheritance, then should we not know what we own before it is stored away?

The choices ahead

Last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shut down to undertake a similar move. Rebuilding that museum with a comparable square footage is costing over $750 million. Refurbishing old buildings such as the North and South Blocks to provide the facilities necessary costs money and takes time. It requires exceptional skill, and few architects have the necessary experience in adapting historic buildings for narrating current and future curatorial concerns, the movement of objects and people, fitting them with state-of-the-art storage, security, offices, lighting, climate control and improving their floor loading capacities. The largest Pallava and Chola sculptures in the National Museum weigh many tonnes obviously putting stress on heritage buildings. Worryingly, in a recent appeal made to the Supreme Court of India to encourage the shift of India’s top offices out of North and South Blocks, the government’s lawyers argued that the buildings were structurally unsafe and “are ill-equipped to meet even the basic fire and earthquake safety norms”. Will they, then, be safe enough to house our country’s greatest wealth and treasures? When will the personnel for this be hired? How long will it take and how much will it cost to make them safe?

None of these details is publicly available yet. Perhaps the courts and Parliament will decide it is not wise to split an entire cultural district at this moment in time. Or, perhaps, this move offers us an unprecedented opportunity to build our nation’s capacities in the field of museum management like never before. Either way, the epitome of our collective wealth as a nation is in the balance.

Naman P. Ahuja is a curator and Professor of Art History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the co-editor of ‘The Arts and Interiors of Rashtrapati Bhavan: Lutyens and Beyond’

By and large, the Information Technology Rules, 2021 go against landmark judicial precedents upholding key rights

The life of Indian Law rather than being shaped along mathematical exactitudes finds itself at the receiving end of an experiential tussle. This tussle has aimed at every stage to bargain for a Fundamental Right in return for some negotiation, sometimes with the desire of the coloniser and at others with the dominant ideology at the Centre.

There are ambiguities

The subject of concern now is the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (https://bit.ly/3oR8ISk) which threaten to deprive social media platforms of their safe harbour immunity in the event of non-compliance with the said rules. While there are positive aspects about the said guidelines, there are, equally, glaring ambiguities and stifling susceptibilities that should render these contrary to past Supreme Court of India precedents such asK.S. Puttaswamy.

The Rules must be credited for they mandate duties such as removal of non-consensual intimate pictures within 24 hours, publication of compliance reports to increase transparency, setting up of a dispute resolution mechanism for content removal and adding a label to information for users to know whether content is advertised, owned, sponsored or exclusively controlled.

Gagging a right

However, the Supreme Court, in the case ofLife Insurance Corpn. Of India vs Prof. Manubhai D. Shah(1992) had elevated ‘the freedom to circulate one’s views as the lifeline of any democratic institution’. It went on to say that ‘any attempt to stifle, suffocate or gag this right would sound a death knell to democracy’ and would ‘help usher in autocracy or dictatorship’. And so, it becomes increasingly important to critically scrutinise the recent barriers being imposed via these Rules against our right to free speech and expression.

The problem started when these Rules came to life. They were framed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY). The Second Schedule of the Business Rules, 1961 does not empower MeiTY to frame regulations for ‘digital media.’ This power belongs to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. In the given case although MeiTY has said that these rules shall be administered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, however this action violates the legal principle of ‘colourable legislation’ where the legislature cannot do something indirectly if it is not possible to do so directly. To propound the problem at hand, the Information Technology Act, 2000, does not regulate digital media. Therefore, the new IT Rules which claim to be a piece of subordinate legislation of the IT Act, travel beyond the rule-making power conferred upon them by the IT Act. This makes the Rulesultra viresto the Act.

Fair recourse, privacy issues

An intermediary is now supposed to take down content within 36 hours upon receiving orders from the Government. This deprives the intermediary of a fair recourse in the event that it disagrees with the Government’s order due to a strict timeline. Additionally, it places fetters upon free speech by fixing the Government as the ultimate adjudicator of objectionable speech online.

The other infamous flaw is how these Rules undermine the right to privacy by imposing a traceability requirement. The immunity that users received from end-to-end encryption was that intermediaries did not have access to the contents of their messages. Imposing this mandatory requirement of traceability will break this immunity, thereby weakening the security of the privacy of these conversations. This will also render all the data from these conversations vulnerable to attack from ill-intentioned third parties. The threat here is not only one of privacy but to the extent of invasion and deprivation from a safe space. These regulations in the absence of a data protection law, coloured in the backdrop of recent data breach affecting a popular pizza delivery chain and also several airlines highlight a lesson left unlearnt.

On fake news

The problem here is that to eliminate fake news — rather than defining its ambit as a first step, the Rules proceed to hurriedly take down whatever an arbitrary, ill-decisioned, biased authority may deem as “fake news”.

Lastly, the Rules create futile additional operational costs for intermediaries by requiring them to have Indian resident nodal officers, compliance officers and grievance officers. Intermediaries are also required to have offices located in India. This makes profit making a far-fetched goal for multinational corporations and start-up intermediary enterprises. Therefore, not only do these Rules place a barrier on the “marketplace of ideas” but also on the economic market of intermediaries in general by adding redundant financial burdens.

Our concluding words on the rapidly diluting right to free speech are only those of caution — of a warning that democracy stands undermined in direct proportion to every attack made on the citizen’s right to have a private conversation, to engage in a transaction, to dissent, to have an opinion and to articulate the same without any fear of being imprisoned.

K.T.S. Tulsi is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India and a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. Tanessa Puri is an Associate at his Chambers and an incoming LL.M. candidate at New York University

Those unwilling to take vaccines don’t just need more science but guidance

COVID-19 vaccines have been developed at a record pace thanks to the collaborative efforts of governments, industry, academia and other organisations. The primary purpose of vaccination is to protect individuals against severe infection. Vaccination also protects populations by providing ‘herd immunity’, if done on a large scale. Globally, vaccinations against polio, small pox, meningitis and so on have seen huge success.

But there seems to be problem in vaccinating people against COVID-19. The possibility of a significant number of people not getting vaccinated thwarts our collective ability to reach the herd immunity threshold of 70-85% against SARS-CoV-2. As we mitigate the problems surrounding vaccine shortage and logistics, the issue of vaccine hesitancy needs to be urgently addressed.

Vaccine hesitancy

The results of a 2020 Gallup poll, conducted before the vaccine roll-out, were published on May 3, 2021. In the poll, one in three adults worldwide (32%) said they would not take the COVID-19 vaccine. India performed better in this poll with only 18% stating that they won’t take the vaccine. But vaccine hesitancy has gone up in India since then, due in part to largely overblown reports of complications or even deaths.

Vaccine hesitancy is complex and context-specific, varying across time, place and vaccines. The influencing factors include a lack of awareness of the extent of benefits, fears based on inaccurate information, lack of access to vaccine, civil liberty concepts, cost, cultural issues, and various layers of confidence deficit (mistrust of intent, lack of confidence in the system) sown by conspiracy theories and disinformation. Disinformation is rife, especially on social media. Among those who are extremely hesitant are the ‘anti-vaxxers’. The rest comprise those who delay getting vaccinated, accept vaccines in principle but are sceptical of their use, accept certain vaccines but not others, etc. ‘Free riders’ are those who do not want vaccines, but wish to derive the benefits of herd immunity.

The consequences of vaccine hesitancy are disastrous. If herd immunity does not develop, disease outbreaks and pandemics will prevail. The slower the vaccination rate, the wider the spread of infection and the greater the chances of mutations and the emergence of new variants.

The right message

To allay vaccine fears, our messaging needs to focus on simple facts. Vaccines have been widely tested. The side-effects that may last a couple of days are a very small price to pay to vastly reduce getting seriously ill from disease. The less than one-in-a-million chance of getting serious side effects far outweighs the effect the disease is likely to have.

Addressing the strategies to blunt disinformation, especially on social media, Lisa Rosenblum says in an article in theNew England Journal of Medicinethat quashing rumours and conspiracies with truth and reliable information alone may not suffice. Before attempting to persuade people, we need to understand the basis of their fear, hesitancy and the anti-vax attitude. By challenging untruths, we inadvertently feed the perception that we are actively suppressing the “real” truth. She concludes that often, the most educated sceptics will be against explanations of scientific facts.

While not different from prior vaccine drives, the objective now is to reach more people faster with a message that doesn’t just provide more science but includes guidance. Providing practical information through social media, alternatives to apps for those lacking easy access to vaccines, and taking the help of well-informed frontline workers will all help.

T.S. Ravikumar is President, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Mangalagiri, Andhra Pradesh, and Member, Patient Safety Curriculum Working Group, World Health Organization, Geneva; Rajeev Aravindakshan is Additional Professor, Community and Family Medicine, AIIMS, Mangalagiri

Cyclones are inevitable, but communities need fiscal rehabilitation for recovery

India’s capacity to withstand multiple, near-simultaneous shocks is being tested, with a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm, Yaas, striking Odisha, just a week after an even stronger Cyclone Tauktae wreaked havoc along the west coast. Yaas, which put up an unnerving display of tornadoes and rain, smothered the north Odisha coast as it made landfall, but the preparatory mass evacuation from habitations appears to have limited the loss of life. Yet, thousands have lost houses and property. West Bengal and Jharkhand also bore the brunt of the weather system’s force, as it punched its way inland from May 26, weakening into a deep depression. All coastal States facing the Bay of Bengal have always been in the path of severe cyclones, the majority following the withdrawal of the monsoon, but their vulnerability may be growing as pre-monsoon and post-monsoon storms increase in frequency and strength. Moreover, for the second year running, States have been hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 season comes as another reminder that India will have to improve its resilience to cyclones. Governments are, no doubt, more sensitive to loss of life today and are raising the capacity of the disaster response forces, but much work needs to be done when it comes to protecting assets and creating fiscal instruments to help people rebuild their lives.

While the full extent of displacement and losses from Cyclone Yaas is yet unknown, past experience points to a growing threat to overall well-being from such catastrophes. The World Meteorological Organization in its State of the Global Climate 2020 report described Cyclone Amphan that hit Bengal in May last year as the costliest cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean, with economic losses to India of the order of $14 billion. In human terms the extreme event displaced 2.4 million people. What stood out in its aftermath was corruption in the distribution of relief, putting West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in a spot. The Amphan experience should convince Chief Ministers that they must insure people against losses from catastrophes using a system of documentation that makes relief and rehabilitation funds non-discretionary. Half a century of economic wisdom postulates that governments are best placed to compensate people, since they can spread the cost of the risk of disasters across the population. But the challenge is to address the risk of cyclones and other extreme weather events using specific funds, making citizens members in a social insurance model. Moreover, considering the negative climate change impact on tropical cyclones, rebuilding should use a green, build back better approach. Cyclones will otherwise take the shine off economic progress.

Proposed hate speech provisionsshould be clear and free of vagueness

Speech is free, but it is a freedom that comes with responsibility. And responsible speech is not just something that does not contain abuse, defamation or incitement to violence. It is increasingly seen as expression that tends not to discriminate against or incite hatred towards groups based on race, gender, caste, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality or immigration status. The world has moved away from a free speech doctrine based on a formal equality among different viewpoints to one that discourages the targeting of any vulnerable section. The term ‘hate speech’ and calls for laws that specifically seek to punish it arise from this inclusive understanding of the basis on which speech is restricted in modern democracies. In this backdrop, the proposal to incorporate provisions against hate speech in the penal law is quite welcome. A committee appointed by the Union Home Ministry, tasked with recommending changes in criminal law, is now seeking to formulate new provisions that will make hate speech a separate offence. The term ‘hate speech’ may not be used, but the panel is examining recommendations made by the Law Commission and the Expert Committee headed by T.K. Viswanathan, on adding Sections 153C and 505A to the IPC. The proposed Section 153C would target speech that gravely threatens any person or group with intention to cause fear or alarm, or incite violence towards them, and prescribe a sentence of two years in prison and a fine. Section 505A, on the other hand, proposes to punish speech or writing that causes fear or alarm among a group, or provokes violence against it, on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or disability.

The Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws attracted criticism when it was formed last year, as many feared a hurried process without adequate and wide consultation. Some lawyers and activists said it was not inclusive and questioned its ability to gather a wide range of opinion in the midst of a pandemic. While such points of criticism remain, it appears that the panel would go ahead and make its recommendations soon. In the context of the hate speech provisions, it must direct its efforts to define narrowly the sections it proposes to formulate and avoid the pitfall of using vague and overbroad terms that would fall foul of the Constitution. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, it may be recalled, was struck down by the Supreme Court because it failed to define some terms that sought to criminalise offensive and annoying messages. Ever since this 2015 decision, some governments see a lacuna in the law concerning offensive messaging over the Internet. If at all new sections are to be introduced, it should be clear that what is sought to be punished is incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred, posing an imminent threat to public order or a targeted group. Only then will it be a valid curb on free speech.

Familiar places, visited by the most and least powerful, are on the demolition list

On crisp winter afternoons in Delhi, in the pre-pandemic era, a reporter could do the rounds of the busy bureaucratic corridors on foot. The capital is not much of a walker’s paradise, except the small pocket called Lutyens’ Delhi.

A routine day would begin in the dark and slippery corridors of Shastri Bhawan that houses nearly half a dozen ministries including Education, Culture, Social Justice, Information and Broadcasting, and Women and Child Development. The building with its narrow windows, stacked one over the other like a child’s jenga set, rations sunlight. But though the corridors are dank, the officers’ rooms are well lit.

A hop across Shastri Bhawan is Krishi Bhawan that houses the earthy ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development, among others. But Nirman Bhawan down the road is where I used to go if I was in dire need of stories.

Going down Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg is a rewarding experience. It provides a majestic view of Raisina Hill. The North and South Block flank the highest office of the land, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, which faces India Gate down the road. Going past the peanut sellers, the teeming bus stand and the multitudes of people, one could appreciate the orderly tree alignment on the India Gate lawns.

Nirman Bhawan houses the important Health Ministry. But my usual haunt was the Urban Development Ministry and the corridors of the Central Public Works Department where elaborate flower arrangements marked the Urban Development Minister’s office lending it a cheery air.

Often, after negotiating the bureaucratese, asking multiple questions on a relatively unknown concept, jotting the key phrases down in my notebook and memorising the rest just in case the official refused to part with documents, I would be in no hurry to head back to office (this was in the pre-online days) and instead take a detour towards Janpath.

Janpath runs parallel to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Marg, but could very well be in an alternate world. The pace on this road is relatively unhurried. The bus stops are not populated like they are on Rafi Ahmed Marg. There are fewer hawkers and little traffic. If Rafi Marg is printed in colour film, Janpath, at least from the National Museum to the National Archives, should be printed in sepia tones.

Till two years ago, the barracks next to the National Museum had the headquarters of the Archaeological Survey of India. Their offices are as moth-eaten as the objects they excavate or examine. This is where I would have long chats with officials on why overnight renovations were being carried out on age-old structures or gently nudge them for information on who gave approval for an excavation in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, based on some seer’s dream.

Now, Rafi Marg is dug up. Shastri Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan and Nirman Bhawan are all going to be demolished. There are signboards prohibiting people from taking photographs. There are no hawkers thanks to the pandemic. In a few years, all these familiar places, the landmarks of Delhi, visited by the most powerful and the least, will fade in memory when the Central Vista becomes a reality. Newer ways of control will be found in the shiny buildings to keep us pesky journalists at bay. My hope is that we will still find our way around it.

Attempts have been made in certain quarters to make political capital out of a few letters written by Dr. Rabindranath Tagore from far-off countries based on a few newspaper cuttings regarding the evils of Non-Co-operation. It has been sought to be made out that the poet is entirely against the movement, disapproves of the very principle of Non-Co-operation and that he, on his return back to the country, will whole-heartedly throw in his weight and influence against the present struggle. We have no doubt as to how soon , and how far, the fond hopes cherished by these enemies of freedom and partners in autocracy, of having found a new and not unworthy ally, will be shattered once the Poet sees everything for himself and learns by direct experience the new born spirit of freedom and sacrifice in his countrymen.

The Union Government is greatly disappointed at the world Powers’ poor response for help to the refugees from East Bengal. Authoritative sources indicated here to-day [New Delhi, May 27] that whatever had been received so far as aid to the refugees “is a drop in the ocean.” However, the Government of India is confident that in the next few months, there will be a better understanding by leading nations of the seriousness of the refugee problem faced by this country. In fact, the entire rehabilitation policy of the Government is based on the assumption that it should be possible for the refugees to return to their country in the next six months. This is the period, the Government believes, within which world Powers would be able to exert influence on Pakistan to create conditions of normalcy in East Bengal as a result of which the refugees could get back. Meanwhile, it is learnt the average daily inflow of refugees in the last two days has registered a slight fall. It is now 50,000 as against 60,000. The Union Government has also tightened up security measures on the border with a view to preventing infiltrators getting into our country in the guise of refugees. The Union Government has also tightened up security measures on the border with a view to preventing infiltrators getting into our country in the guise of refugees.