A Model Mosque For India

In Islam, a mosque is a humble way for man to create a place where divine presence on earth could be called for. The Arabic word ‘Masjid’ means a ‘place for prostration’. It is obligatory for Muslim men to congregate five times each day, for weekly-Friday/Juma prayers and on Eid Al Fitr and Eid Ad Duha, at the local or the city mosque. It is also used as a gathering place for meetings and socialising and is strategically located at a junction to provide easy access to all. The motive to create such a space in the habitat is that one enjoys solitude within the closed structure, and connects to the world externally.

However, Muslims particularly in secular countries like India need to turn the local mosque into a hub of community activities serving every section of the society. This would also help in countering the campaign by hardliners restricting entry of people of other faiths into their religious places.

Architectural growth of mosques

Architecturally, a mosque has four main elements namely the congregation hall, a mihrab marking the qiblah (the direction for prayers and the site for the Imam), a minaret (tall tower for the call of azaan) and a hauz (water tank for ablution), and is directed towards the qiblah, the direction in which the Holy Kabaah is, and which Muslims face for their prayers.

Arab-styled hypostyle mosques were the earliest type of mosques, pioneered under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. These mosques have square or rectangular plans with an enclosed courtyard (sahn) and a covered prayer hall. Historically, in the warm Middle Eastern and Mediterranean climates, the courtyard served to accommodate the large number of worshippers during Friday prayers. However, the simplicity of the Arab plan limited the opportunities for further architectural innovations.

Persians (Iranians) were the first to depart from the Arabic style. They incorporated design elements from earlier Parthian and Sassanid styles into their mosques. Thus, Islamic architecture witnessed the introduction of such structures as domes and large, arched entrances, referred to as iwans.

ALSO READ: Indian Madrassas Need Reorientation

During Seljuq rule, as Islamic mysticism was on the rise, the four-iwan arrangement took form. This style firmly established the courtyard façade of mosques, with the towering gateways at each side. The Persians also introduced Persian gardens into mosque designs. Soon, a distinctly Persian style of mosques started appearing that would significantly influence the designs of later Timurid, and also Mughal-era, mosque designs.

The Ottomans introduced central dome mosques in the 15th century. These mosques have a large dome centred over the prayer hall. In addition to having a large central dome, a common feature is smaller domes that exist off-centre over the prayer hall or throughout the rest of the mosque, where prayer is not performed. This style was heavily influenced by Byzantine architecture with its use of large central domes. The Khirki Mosque in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi incorporates this design and has more than 81 domes.

Mosques built in Southeast Asia often represent the Indonesian-Javanese style architecture, which are different from the ones found throughout the Greater Middle East. The ones found in Europe and North America appear to have various styles but most are built on Western architectural designs, some are former churches or other buildings that were used by non-Muslims. In Africa, most mosques are old but the new ones are built in imitation of those of the Middle East.

Historically, a number of mosques were constructed in India during the Mughal period. However, after partition most of the mosques were built on simple design elements, but with the flow of money sent by economic immigrants and also collected by clerics, the building of mosque in India, soon turned into an expansive one, as every mosque planner wanted to outdo the other.

An Innovative Mosque

Architect Qutub Mandviwala from Gujarat has established a new trend in mosque design when he planned the Gulistan Mosque at Gulistan Housing Society in Jajmau, Kanpur, UP in 2018.

Gulistan Mosque in Kanpur – Picture courtesy Huzaifa Ahmad

The mosque built on a small plot area of 250 sq. mts is located in a densely populated area. It is situated in a planned community project, which caters to a large number of people, of varied faiths. The simple and the innovative design of the mosque catches the eye of every visitor. It is connected to two main roads and has two entries, one from the main external road, whereas other from the internal community road.

The mosque has been designed with simplicity and precision, using basic plans and little ornamentation. The planning of the mosque is derived keeping in mind the ideologies of the faith and its symbolism in the real world.

A small open patch surrounding the main building is used as a sehen and the two entry points to the mosque leads to a passage way that has the wuzu area for ablution and space for stacking footwear.

The main building of the mosque is tilted at an angle, to reflect the prostrating figure while in prayers. The exterior is simple with large courtyard space, beautified with landscaping. A small water body surrounds the minar at the outside.

The elevation or the facade is covered with carved jaalis (latticed or perforated screens), giving it a Mughal touch, and for filtration of harsh natural light. The magnificence of the light entering in is symbolic of the enchantments the celestial world holds for the humans. The jaali façade weaves a subtle play of shadow and light and provides a dynamic nature to the subtle peaceful quality of the space within as it gives out enough lighting through different seasons. The external heat is also cut out as air is subjected to the venturi effect.

A Model Mosque

However, at present besides constructing modern and aesthetically pleasing mosques, we should also focus on building mosques, which are functional and serve other community purposes also.

We can take this argument a step forward by envisioning the modern mosque to be a Community Resources Centre (CRC) for the local Muslim community, where the mosque is located. This mosques/CRC should serve as the meeting point of the local Muslim congregation for their religious needs besides social needs also.

The mosque should have a space for a library, a Career Guidance or Counselling Centre, where counsellors could provide expert guidance to the community’s youth with regard to their educational and career options and choices, it should also serve as a community interaction centre, which could keep an eye on the poor and ailing sections of the congregation and provide them relief facilities. It should also have a room to give bath and prepare the bodies of the dead for burial.

We should try to make the local mosques, which are architecturally and aesthetically pleasing, not costing much and try to turn them into a multi-functional venue, for the local community, fulfilling both religious and practical purposes and need of the local Muslims. An initiative, which was started in some European countries some time ago, has been started recently in India also. Under the initiative local non-Muslims are invited to the local mosque to observe how the prayers are conducted there besides exposing them to the teachings of the Holy Quran and basic Islamic fundamentals. Initiatives like these will go a long way in building-up an atmosphere of trust amongst different communities and increase inter-faith interactions, which are the need of the hour in the country.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

Afghanistan – The Great Game Continues

Billed as ‘Heart of Asia’ by its multinational stakeholders, the landlocked Afghanistan is where a new chapter of cold war and what was touted as the Great Game, is being written. What happens here in the near future will shape the region’s history, but not without impacting much of the world.

We say the rest of the world because energy needs and armament exports shall continue to attract everyone to this region. The Great Game was aimed at the Czarist Russia and the former Soviet Union. Today, Russia retains this position, but as junior partner of a resurgent China. The two are, indeed, the unstated “other places” where the United States feels compelled to focus to justify its decision to quit the much-touted “global war against terrorism”.

Unable to shake off what his predecessors – George Bush who started and then escalated it to Iraq, Obama who could not undo, but what Trump has shackled him with, Biden is now committed to quit America’s longest war. In declaring that the US will withdraw its troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11, he has bought himself 132 days, no more. Its scheduling with the anniversary symbolizes America’s failure to sustain the war – forget winning it.

Now, think of a people whom the world’s most powerful nation abandons. It cannot, of course, be argued that the Americans stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. The Afghans have a history of keeping their heads high, and will not admit it. They have no choice either. They may have a glorious history of having defeated foreign invaders and survived occupations. But once the US withdraws, an elected government they support will collapse in a matter of months. Power struggle could begin with bloodshed and street fights.  The triumphal Taliban are already talking of retribution, setting up courts and introducing their stringent brand of Sharia. A nation with a chequered past and an uncertain presence now faces a grim future.

The sufferers, once again, are the Afghan people. The younger ones into science and technology at India-aided centres. The girls, about 40 percent of the academic force, may find their schools and colleges close, because the incoming Taliban think they are un-Islamic. Few would recall that the Russians helped educate a generation of Afghan women enabling them to nurture with relatively better position in their families. Now, their daughters and granddaughters will lose the freedom they enjoyed in the last two decades. 

ALSO READ: China Fears Taliban Rule May Harm BRI

It is déjà vu for older Afghans, the high and mighty invading to defend democracy and fight terrorism, and then walking away, weary but not chastened or sorry, for repeating what they did in 1990. The West had won and rejoiced at the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now America’s turn to end its longest war and conduct a victory-less withdrawal that would make Vietnam seem graceful.

This was inevitable, given America’s war fatigue after losing 2,500 men and sinking three trillion dollars. But the military situation was favourable till 2017-2019. The Taliban had a tough time and heavy casualties, enough for the US to force a stalemate and a compromise that would compel the Taliban to talk to the government in Kabul. But Trump hastened to sign the deal at Doha in February 2020, ostensibly to enhance his chances of electoral victory in the presidential polls.

The American abandonment began when the pact was signed keeping the Ghani Government out of the talks and on Taliban assurances that everyone knew the Americans could not enforce, save their own facilities from being attacked. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was sought or secured for the Afghan populace. 

The US agreeing to withdraw by May 1, 2021 emboldened the Taliban to seize vast territory, attacking even schools and hospitals, to enhance their bargaining position. This reversed the gains the US Marines-supported government troops had made on the ground. Trump and his envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shall be judged by history.

And now comes the new deadline of September 11. Whether the Taliban will view this delayed withdrawal as a breach of the agreement and resume large-scale attacks against Afghan and American forces is not clear. What is clear, however, is the success of their military strategy of pushing the Afghan forces, reduced to a mere 20,000 to 30,000 (as against the ambitious 250,000 originally planned). Their funding at USD four billion annually could end if the US Congress votes against it. Resistance by the government forces will ebb with security forces abandoning their positions and switching sides. This has been the past record.

Why would the Taliban agree to share power the way the Americans ask and the world community hopes, when they can take it by force? They already control large swaths of territory from a government with which they are being asked to cooperate? The Taliban regard the government in Kabul as a puppet of the Americans and barely hide their contempt for it. They have never committed to a power-sharing arrangement with the government, much less elections. The Kabul government is expecting a bloody endgame, and is likely to get it.  The Taliban believe they have already militarily won the war with Afghan forces, and they may prove right.

The situation on the ground is bound to worsen. Emboldened by the American withdrawal, and constituting a further threat to the Ghani government, are the regional satraps. These power brokers have always survived by changing sides, violently. They may now cut deals with the winning side, the Taliban, who are Pashtuns but dominate even in non-Pashtun areas.

President Ashraf Ghani is Casabianca, the proverbial boy on the burning deck. It could be a matter of months before his government collapses or cuts a deal of its own with the Taliban – a deal that will be hailed as a great peace move, probably making him worthy of a Peace Nobel. Sorry, but cynicism set in when going by the past records.  

ALSO READ: Pak Jihad Factory That Fuels Terror In Afghanistan

As of now, Ghani’s future could be bleak. He can only hope that he does not meet the fate similar to some of his predecessors. Najibullah’s body was hung by the lamppost after even the United Nations failed to help. Given his academic background, he might end up as an American university don, unlike last South Vietnamese president, Kao Kye, who sold pizzas.   

To the world community, the expression being touted is of the US’ “responsible exit”. It inherently accepts that there definitely is America’s responsibility, having started it all two decades back as “global war against terrorism”, and implies that any semblance of having won that global war or even having eliminated terrorism has remained elusive after two decades. It is also a bitter reminder is that the US and the West as a whole went to Afghanistan against the invasion by the then Soviet Union with similar objectives, slogans and promises. When the Soviets withdrew, the victorious West abandoned Afghanistan to fractious groups of fighters.

It is advantage Pakistan that nurtured the Taliban for long, and China, its mentor. India cannot like it. It has no friends among the Taliban and few among the other groups. But staying out is not an option for India. It has invested three billion dollars and in well-earned Afghan goodwill for two decades. Earlier, the US would ask Pakistan to “do more” on curbing terrorism. Now, India is being asked, to “invest more” in a hostile Afghanistan. Identified with the US in the region now, it must feel as abandoned as Ghani and his men, till it cultivates new equations. It is difficult, like it was when the Soviets withdrew. That explains why developments in the “Heart of Asia” have global implications.

The writer co-authored: Taliban & the Afghan Turmoil (Himalaya Books, 1997), Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (Himalaya Books, 1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (Wordsmiths, April 2000). He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Is China-Iran Axis A Myth Or Gamechanger?

On 27 March Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian countarpart Mohammad Javad Zarif signed in Tehran a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, expressing a desire to increase cooperation and trade relations over the next 25 years.

This Agreement has been described as a massive change in Sino-Iranian relations that, according to media reports, may see China invest about USD 400 billion in Iran. The question arises- is this a myth or a real game-changer in regional relations?

The document signed between the two sides is an expanded version of a statement made during the visit of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping in Tehran back in 2016, pledging bilateral cooperation on political, cultural, energy, trade, security and defense issues over 25 years.

At that time, the two countries signed 17 agreements and also agreed to increase bilateral trade more than ten-fold to USD 600 billion in the next decade, as China pursues its BRI (One Belt One Road Initiative).

The BRI is an ambitious network of road, rail and port routes that will connect China to Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It should be noted, however, that China’s pledge to increase investment tenfold has little to show five years later.

An 18-page draft of the agreement published by The New York Times last summer listed nearly 100 projects to be funded by Chinese investments and are expected to be a part of Xi’s ambitious BRI, extending China’s strategic influence across Eurasia.

These 100 projects include airports, high-speed railways and subways, that will improve the lives of most Iranian citizens. In return, Iran is to provide regular and heavily discounted oil supplies to China for 25 years.

Despite a lot of press reports, there is no mention in the Strategic Cooperation Agreement about a specific amount to be invested by China in Iran. The document is by and large a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next 25 years.

Zhao Lijian, the Spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replying to a question about the agreement, said: “The plan focuses on tapping the potentials in economic and cultural cooperation and charting the course for long-term cooperation. It neither includes any quantitative, specific contracts and goals nor targets any third party, and will provide a general framework for China-Iran cooperation going forward.”

The Strategic Cooperation Agreement between China and Iran could change the assumptions of the West about Chinese ambitions in the Middle East region and may lead to a weakening of US influence in this volatile region of the world. Iran, which has been severely affected by US sanctions and international isolation, sees China as throwing it a lifeline and views the agreement as the beginning of mutually beneficial relations.

Some analysts describe the Strategic Cooperation Agreement as “destabilizing” and “a direct threat to US goals in the Middle East”, while others started calling China and Iran “the new Axis of Evil.”

The fact that China is a world power that can afford to defy the US and can ignore sanctions imposed by the US Administration is something that worries President Joe Biden. According to US officials, the agreement could also make way for Chinese military bases in Iran, fundamentally changing the region’s geopolitics.

Some press reports claim that the new US Administration is trying to rally allies against China, something which Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as the world’s “greatest geopolitical test.”

In the strategic realm, the proposed draft talks about deepening military cooperation, with “joint training and exercises”, “joint research and weapons development” as well as intelligence sharing.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that “China is consistent in opposing the unreasonable unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by other countries, because they violate the international law and are an affront to human conscience”.

Wang added that China stands ready to work with Iran and other countries to jointly oppose the acts of bullying by powers, uphold international equity and justice and defend the basic norms of international relations.

Dr William Figueroa, a specialist in Sino-Iranian relations, points out that while China remains Iran’s top oil importer, “Chinese firms have not increased investment, imports, or exports at the exponential levels pledged in 2016, and are not likely to do so in 2021 either. The deal is unlikely to fundamentally threaten the balance of power in the Middle East. China tends to choose stable relations with geostrategic advantages over volatile ones likely to spark conflict. For all its propaganda, China, like Iran, is more interested in its immediate geopolitical goals than a revolution.”

Several experts on Sino-Iranian relations, like Jonathan Fulton, senior fellow at Atlantic Council, describe the Agreement as “a list of things Iran and China hope to do, under perfect conditions”, while Lucille Greer and Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, said that the agreement is “not as alarming as it sounds.”

In conclusion, it can be said that relations between China and Iran are going to improve due to the agreement is not a myth. It will give the Iranian side some breathing space, helping it break somewhat the diplomatic isolation imposed by the US.

At the same time exaggerated concern that the agreement will change the geopolitical map of the region are most probably unfounded.

(The views and ideas expressed in the article are solely of the author. – ANI)

Biopics – Real Life Stories Retold

Indians are looking for their heroes, past or present. Even villains are okay, if they are and do things larger than life. Ready subjects with potential for profits have encouraged a trend in the shape of biographical films – biopics for short.

As film-goers hunger for more, film-makers braving the Covid-19 pandemic, find it necessary to work indoors on research and writing before venturing out.

It is not new. Film analyst Gautam Kaul says this genre came from Hollywood like much else over the last century. Audiences look for stories that inspire and inform. Stories of success and fortitude are appealing. Biopics are dramatized for mass acceptance and visual appeal. Literary/cinematic licence is taken, with approval of the subject, if alive. Call it a sponsored exercise, but none complains, save some film critics, if the end-product is entertaining and has the right message.

If a biopic is re-living the past, step aside for a quick review, both global and Indian.

The world’s first recorded biopic was in 1900, expectedly from the French and predictably, on Joan of Arc. She was repeated almost a century later in 1999. The world’s most filmed individuals are Jesus Christ, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler and the Kennedys. Hollywood’s Genghiz Khan, the Mongol warrior, was played by John Wayne and later, Omar Sharif. Che Guevara was another repeated hero.

India’s oldest biopic was on Shivaji. A film on Dr Kotnis, who died during a medical mission to China, was made within months, with international flavour. Southern Indian cinema dipped into northern India’s history to make Chanakya And Chandragupta, in 1977. The two characters were played by Telugu stalwarts Akineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) and N T Ramarao (NTR). Bengali actor Sarvadaman Banerjee portrayed two persons who lived a millennium apart — eighth century Adi Shankaracharya (1983) and 19th century Swami Vivekananda (1994).

The first internationally mounted biopic on an Indian was Gandhi (1982). Made by Richard Attenborough, it won multiple Oscars, including one for British-Indian actor Ben Kingsley who played Gandhi and another for Bhanu Athaiya, who dressed up the characters. Strongly author-backed biopics have done well. Bandit Queen was on Phoolan Devi, Rangrasiya about painter Raja Ravi Varma.

Sports, science, crime – everything sells on the celluloid. Many recent biopics like Dangal (on Phogat family’s girl wrestlers), Mary Kom (the boxer-lawmaker who remains an Olympics hopeful) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (on sprinter Milkha Singh, the “flying Sikh”) have won critical and box office acclaim. Shah Rukh Khan led a women’s hockey team to victory and also redeemed his own honour in Chak De India, Akshay Kumar played a men’s hockey coach that brought India its first Olympics victory. It it is now Ajay Devgn’s turn to play football coach, Syed Abdul Hakim, in Maidaan.

ALSO READ: Unparalleled Reign Of Mughal-e-Azam

Badminton star Saina Nehwal is being portrayed by Parineeti Chopra. Shabash Mithu is on one of the great woman cricketers, Mithali Raj. She will be brought alive by Tapsee Pannu who, along with Bhumi Pednekar, had played Haryana housewives turning champion shooters in Sandh Ki Ankh.

The list cannot be complete without a mention of 83, the year India won its first World Cup under Kapil Dev’s captaincy. Indeed, cricket has more than its share. Lives of M S Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammed Azharuddin have transformed on the cinema.

Of science-related events, India’s Mars Mission received a filmy leg with Mission Mangal and so did the nuclear tests of 1998 in Pokhran. The Nambi Effect is about rocket scientist Nambi Narayanan, charged and punished, but eventually exonerated.

Years after Shabana Azmi portrayed a woman mafia chief in Godmother, Aaliya Bhatt is playing Gangubai Kathiawadi, a brothel keeper in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, the red light zone.

Freedom fighters and faujis are natural heroes. Vicky Kaushal is busy portraying freedom fighter, Sardar Udham Singh and also Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, the army chief during Bangladesh liberation. Pippa is the title of another hero of that war, Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta. The role is being enacted by Ishan Khatter.

Elections in Tamil Nadu add froth to the talk of forthcoming biopic, Thalaivi, the leader in Tamil, on Jayalalithaa. The role is being enacted by Kangana Ranaut who played Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi with great aplomb. So popular is the Jayalalithaa cult that Anushka Shetty is playing it in series on the digital media.

But there are problems of comparisons and contrasts, since ‘Amma’ died just four years back. Many of the biopics listed here have earned controversy and complaints before courts. It may be genuine grouse of some family member, or just seeking five minutes of fame. These days, it is very easy for ‘sentiments’ being ‘hurt’ and interested quarters taking to agitation and violence.

Does transition from cinema to politics qualify for a biopic? Rajinikant remains elusive, while Kamal Haasan has followed the footsteps of M G Ramachandran (MGR) and other Tamil and Telugu film stars. Besides Jayalalithaa, biopic has been made in Mollywood (M for Madras, Chennai) only on NTR. This is because the Telugu cinema legend founded a political party and became Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. His role is performed by one of his look-like sons.

From the pages of history, Prithviraj Chauhan is being resurrected by Ajay Devgn. His portrayal of Tanhaji, Shivaji’s lieutenant, was a big hit last year.

ALSO READ: Devdas, The Show Isn’t Over Yet

There is no dearth of subjects for biopics, if only directors with imagination can get financiers. People, both real and what are literary creations, have been filmed. Anarkali, the courtesan in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court, the lady love of Prince Salim was the central figure in Mughal-e-Azam, considered the greatest film made in India. Originally, hers was a character in a play written in the last century. But try telling this to anyone in South Asia.  Why, even the Ramayan and Mahabharat TV serials, that can be termed collective biographies, were avidly watched by millions last year. The three-decade gap did not matter because characters from these epics are real in public mind.

Anarkali is also real in popular lore, like Padmavati or Rani Padmini, who probably never existed. Protestors who turned violent during the making and release of the film Padmavat did not heed when reminded that she was but medieval era poet Malik Jayasi’s creation. But then, ‘sentiments’ were ‘hurt’, turning reel-versus-reality debate rowdy.

Biopics on national leaders are few. There is none on Jawaharlal Nehru, although he figured in many films. Lal Bahadur Shastri was clubbed with Subhas Bose into a forgettable ‘thriller’ that sought to show the erstwhile Soviet Union conspiring to eliminate Indian leaders. Although a counter-point to Nehru, Sardar Patel received decent treatment from Ketan Mehta. Indira Gandhi remained fictionalized, portrayed by Suchitra Sen in Aandhi.

The trend now is of election-time political potboilers. Thackeray on Shiv Sena founder did well. But the release of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biopic just before the 2019 general elections became controversial and was delayed. But no protest or compunction prevented Accidental Prime Minister, on his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh. If the former was an out-and-out glorification, the latter was bad caricaturing. Neither did well commercially.

Bollywood does not film its own greats. Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory depicted pioneer Dadasaheb Phalke’s struggle in making of India’s first film, Raja Harishchandra in 1913. Shyam Benegal made Bhumika on Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, based on her autobiography. Dev Anand has left his memoirs, and many veterans have begun to publish theirs. Prospects abound. Of those still in action, Sanjay Dutt figures in and as Sanju that shows him, warts and all, yet a lovable person.

Expertise to make biopics is ready for export. Shyam Benegal is making Bangabandhu on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose founding a nation, ruling it, but being killed by his own men makes for a tragedy with Shakespearean touches.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

EVMs Must Flag Candidates With Criminal Records

The concept of ‘The Rule of Law’ is ingrained in our Constitution. However, when politicians with criminal records get elected to law-making bodies and even become part of the government, it defeats the whole idea behind establishing ‘The Rule of Law’. Law-breakers after becoming the law-makers ensure that only those laws and policies are made that serve their interest and are not in contradiction to it. The criminalization of politics in an electoral democracy thus poses a threat to the very foundation of Republic of India. In spite of various directions given by the Supreme Court of India from time to time, no political party has shown the will to eliminate criminal elements from their fold.

Over the last three general elections, there has been an alarming increase in the strength of criminals entering politics. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) report , out of the 7,928 candidates who filed nomination for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 1,500 (19%) had declared criminal cases against themselves. In the previous Lok Sabha elections, held in 2014, out of 8,205 candidates, 1,404 (17%) candidates had been facing criminal charges while out of 7,810 candidates in 2009 general elections, 1,158 (15%) had criminal records.

The report also pointed out that 1,070 (13%) candidates in 2019 elections had serious criminal cases including cases related to rape, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, or crimes against women. The percentage of candidates facing serious criminal charges in 2014 was 11% and in 2009, the figures was 8%. The report also shows that 49% constituencies 2019 had three or more candidates with declared criminal cases pitted against one another. This figure was 45% and 36% in 2014 and 2009 respectively. The rising criminalization of politics hence is an established fact.

A candidate is required to file an affidavit called Form 26 at the time of filing his nomination papers, which furnishes information on his/her assets, liabilities, educational qualifications, criminal antecedents (convictions, stayed convictions and pending cases) and public dues, if any. The Supreme Court has ruled that a candidate stands disqualified from contesting elections if his conviction in a criminal case, wherein a jail term of two or more years has been awarded, is not stayed. The apex court has also directed political parties to publish the criminal antecedents of their candidates on their website and social media platforms along with the reasons for fielding each one of these candidates, notwithstanding their ‘winnability’. The candidates have also been directed to publish such antecedents in newspapers and television at least three times before polls.

ALSO READ: Credibility Of Election Commission Under Scanner

However, various survey reports show that these measures are not sufficient to make the voters aware of the antecedents of contesting candidates, taking into account the factors like illiteracy rate, access to mass communication means and general unawareness. As per National Statistical Commission’s survey report, literacy rate among persons of age seven years and above during there are 718.74 million active internet users in India that comprise only 54.29% of the population and 45.71% of the country’s population still does not have internet access. Publicity of criminal antecedents of contesting candidates through newspapers and television three times before polls too have a limited reach.

According to a survey report on ‘governance issues and voting behaviour’ conducted by Association for Democratic Reforms in 2018, although 97.86% voters felt that candidates with criminal background should not be in Parliament or state assembly, only 35.20% voters knew that they could get information on criminal records of the candidates. In relation to voting candidates with criminal antecedents, the maximum number of voters (36.67%) felt that people vote for such candidates because they are unaware of his/her criminal records.

While not all citizens have access to mobile internet or a television set, each eligible voter of India has access to the electronic voting machine (EVM) and hence it could be used as an effective tool to make voters aware of the candidates with criminal antecedents. The Election Commission of India prints ballot papers used in the units of EVMs for Lok Sabha elections in white colour and for assembly elections in pink. This photograph is prescribed to be displayed on the Ballot Unit and on postal ballot papers in order to “avoid any confusion, which may arise when candidates with same or similar names contest from the same constituency”.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

If the panels (name, photo and election symbol) of the candidates with declared criminal cases against themselves are printed in red on the ballot papers, the voters could identify such candidates and thereby make an informed choice. Red is the traditional colour of warning. Printing their panels in red will help illiterate adults and other voters encountering difficulties in accessing the details of the criminal antecedents of the contesting candidates make a careful decision and discourage political parties from fielding such candidates in elections.

A copy of the list of contesting candidates is also displayed prominently outside each polling station. The Election Commission will do well to display a copy of the summarised version of affidavits of contesting candidates along with it. It will help voters to check the antecedents of contesting candidates before entering the polling station.

This will help voters exercise their right to vote in an informed manner and discourage political parties from fielding candidates with criminal antecedents in elections. Electoral reforms are an ongoing process based on the changing technology and challenges. The measures suggested could be launched in trial phases and limited to a zone or certain constituencies. If positive results show up, the same reforms can be launched at a large scale to rid our legislature of criminal elements. This will be a service both to the polity and the republic.

The writer is an academic researcher in the field of good governance and policy-making

Israeli Elections: Dwindling Popularity Of Netanyahu

The Israeli parliament was dissolved in December 2020 on the advice of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who wanted to improve his party’s position in the legislature, and the nation went for early elections in March 21, the fourth in two years. In the proportional representative system of parliamentary democracy, in Knesset, a house having 120 seats; no single party by itself has ever got 61 seats to obtain a simple majority. Likud, a Right wing ruling party has lost six seats from the earlier 36 and along with allies, has once again fallen short of nine seats by securing a total of 52 seats. The political instability in Israel is likely to continue in the near future.

Netanyahu has been the youngest ever and the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel since 2009. Bibi, as he is affectionately called, comes from an affluent secular Jewish family, and was based both in Jerusalem and Philadelphia. While he was born in Jerusalem, he graduated from high school in US and returned to Israel to join Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 1967; after the Six Day War, and took part as a team leader in Yom Kippur war of 1973.

He was also wounded in 1972 during Operation Isotope and returned to US for doing college after his military service. He became a technocrat after doing Bachelor and Master of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Benjamin Netanyahu is the younger brother of Yonnie Natanyahu, a national hero who was commander of the Special Forces in raid at Entebbe airport to release the hostages in July 1976. Yonnie was the only fatal casualty in the mission.

Based on his worldwide exposure and command over English language, Bibi Netanyahu was appointed Permanent Representative (ambassador) of Israel to UN in 1984 and was elected to Knesset on return to Israel in 1988. Netanyahu was appointed as Israeli’s youngest PM ever, in 1996, after he led the Likud party to power as the Chairman for three years from 1993 onwards. An articulate and wily leader, he has steered Israel through tough times, three wars and the economic boom that Israel has witnessed due to its technological prowess especially in information technology, defence industry, cyber security and drip irrigation.

Netanyahu is also the first PM in harness who has been indicted for bribery and corruption in November 2019. He was officially charged of deception and breach of trust and bribery. For the last two years, Bibi’s sole aim has been to stay in power and thereby avoid being tried by the court of law. He has been an advocate of one state theory and has encouraged new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem thereby shrinking the areas that were to be given to the Palestinian state as per the UN-sponsored Two Nation Theory wherein equal contiguous amount of areas were to go to both Israel and Palestine with the latter having Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nationwide rallies and protests have been held urging Netanyahu to resign while his own party has held rallies to support him.

ALSO READ: Palestine To Hold National Elections After 16 Years

Netanyahu had two concurrent tenures with President Obama in power in the US and both held opposing views on the modus operandi of handling the Palestinian conflict resolution. Thanks to the Jewish lobby in the US which supported the election of President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an American Jewish businessman and his special envoy for the West Asia peace process; in the last four years, President Trump gave unstinted support to Israel and almost buried the Two Nation Theory, which simply means that the Palestinians will never get a separate state of their own.

Under Trump, the Israelis got a moral ascendency by US recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a fact all his predecessors desisted. As per the UN, Jerusalem is supposed to remain an international city. In 2020, thanks to Kushner again, peace treaties were signed between UAE and Israel and Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both the Arab countries have recognised Israel and have commenced diplomatic and economic relations with Israel giving a death blow to the cause of return of Palestinian refugees and formation of a Palestinian state as per the Two Nation Theory.

A large section of populace is fed up of successive elections and ongoing corruption charges and would like to see Netanyahu go. Unfortunately, there is no leader of the same stature as Bibi either in the Likud party or in the opposition. The closest who comes to fill in his place is Benny Gantz of Kahol Lavan (White and Blue) Party, the present Defence Minister who has been the erstwhile CDS of IDF and has acceptance of a large section of population who has been looking for a change in government. Yair Lepid of Yesh Atid-Telem Party who has secured 17 seats is another leader who may also lay a claim for the top job in the anti- Netanyahu camp.

ALSO READ: Israel UAE Sign Abraham Accord

The Israeli parliament, the Knesset has 120 seats conforming to the biblical tradition of an assembly of 120 scribes, sages and prophets. The members are elected for a four-year term from a single, nationwide, electoral district. To form the government a coalition must come up with 61 seats. Interestingly, in the previous elections, both Netanyahu and Gantz (of Blue and White or Israeli Resilience Party) with allies had 60 seats each and then formed a national government that did not last long.

While Netanyahu (Likud 30) with the three religious parties with Right-wing leanings namely Shas (9),United Torah Judaism (7) and Religious Zionism (6) can muster 52 seats, he will still have to woo his old ally cum competitor Naftali Bennett (Yamina -7) and Unites Arab List (4).

The anti- Netanyahu bloc with Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid as the leader have 57 seats and they also need to get Yamina (7) or United Arab List (UAL) / Raam Party (4) headed by Mansour Abbas, to their camp.

Naftali Bennett (Yamina) and Mansour Abass (UAL) who have not shown their hand so far with 11 seats amongst them are going to be the King makers. The Arabs (UAL) in Israel are 20 percent of the population and the Ultra Orthodox Jews (Hardim) are 10 percent.

Even if Netanyahu is once again able to stitch an alliance with 61 seats, it is not likely to be a stable government and the political situation in Israeli will still be in a limbo till the next elections. A new inclusive national government with fresh leadership, new ideas and centric orientation, can only bring in political stability. It is about time Bibi Netanyahu recognises the writing on the wall and hang up his political boots with grace or whatever is left of it. Whoever forms the Govt, has to deal with post COVID-19 problems of slowdown of the economy and the loss of jobs that many Israelis are reeling under.

(Lt Gen Ike Singha was the Head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission between Israel and Syria on Golan Heights)

Virus Isn’t Going Away, Prevention Is Our Best Bet

Coronavirus has turned our lives upside down in more ways than one and even after a year of the pandemic being officially announced, the world is not in the green. As a community medicine practitioner in Epidemiology, I have been studying the behaviour of the novel Coronavirus and its host, us, the humans. Yet, no matter how much I study things in detail, I always come to the same conclusion about the Coronavirus: This virus can change forms (mutate) and come up with new strains faster than we can figure out its cure or vaccine. So, our best bet right now is to avoid the virus! The prevention is easy; the cure may not be.

Our best preventive tools – masks, hand-wash and sanitisers are now easily available. What is not easily available is the will in most people to co-operate and use these tools both for individual safety as well as public health. Even as the number of infected cases and resultant fatalities rise, there is a certain nonchalance in public behaviour regarding the risks. On March 27, more than 62,000 new cases were registered across the country, with over 300 deaths. The first time that the number of people infected in a single day went above 50,000 was July 27, 2020. The last time that the number of new cases went above 50,000 was November 6, 2020.

Even though the number of new infected cases is going up, the ratio of the number of people losing their lives to the infection, is so far less in 2021, than it was in 2020. However, those suffering with manifestations are showing somewhat severe symptoms than before. Though panic is never a way forward, but we should not definitely let our guards down yet as well.

We are seeing a renewed, fresh wave of the virus because the virus has mutated (changed its basic genetic structure and developed newer, more dangerous strains) to survive in its human hosts. We have learnt some strategies to cope with them and the virus too has gained new skills to dodge the human immune system! The influenza virus mutates almost every year and develops new strains. We will have to see which way the wind blows for the novel coronavirus. It definitely has mutated within a year.

ALSO READ: A Vaccine Of Hope

With newer mutations coming up globally we are faced with the threat of the new strains, the UK strain, the South African strain, and the Brazilian strain. It is the antigens that are responsible for stimulating the production of antibodies by the immune system. Even minor mutations depending on the area of the virus they have occurred in, can play in a big way with our immune systems, and are known as ‘variants of concern’. These new variants are identified using a process known as genome sequencing, which reads and then interprets the genetic information found in the RNA- Ribonucleic acid (in this case) of the virus. We need to study the virus to be able to fight it better.

India, through genome sequencing has also detected what is known as a new “double mutant” COVID-19 variant. This means that two important changes are coming together in the same virus. The mutations are basically affecting key areas in the spike protein (the crown-like area which helps the virus to latch on to human cells) of the coronavirus and thus helping them skip or escape the resistance offered by our immune system. This is mostly affecting states like Maharashtra and Delhi the most. Other states closer to these two are also reporting increased number of cases. This is probably because these two states have the maximum international travel (both inward and outward) and thus the maximum exposure to the virus, both by way of the original strain (from Wuhan, China) and the 3 newer strains. At least 18 states and Union Territories in India now have different strains of coronavirus running amok: the UK strain, the South African strain and the Indian strain, so to speak. The threat of infection is high.

What all this means is we are taking one step forward and two steps back in terms of handling the pan-world health crisis. We were all thinking that with the vaccine we would now be saved, but the virus is changing in ways that render the vaccines weak. We cannot say that a person who has been infected once and has received the vaccine as well, won’t be re-infected, though it depends upon an individual’s immune strength as to how his/her body will react and to what level they would be affected.

However, the scientists suggest that the severity of the disease will be bit lesser among the vaccinated individuals – a ray of hope, but still the battle against spread of infection, is on. During the first wave of coronavirus in March 2020 what saved us was the lockdown; it helped in more ways than one to trace and isolate and further treat infected people. However, for all purposes, a second nationwide lockdown doesn’t look feasible, because it affects the people financially when they are not able to earn their livelihood.

What we need right now to handle the second wave is a really strong execution of the plan we already have in place. Public health awareness was already achieved during the first wave; almost the whole population is aware of the crisis as well as the solution, but what is missing is a respect for solutions and the motivation to enact those simple behaviours.

We need strong public health advocacy. Everyday we need to educate, organize and mobilise to change the reluctant and seemingly over-confident attitude among the mass as a whole.  We need people at the grassroots level to reinforce for good the safety measures. So many people have let their guards down after one year of the pandemic. The various state elections, the many political rallies, the many religious festivals (we have the upcoming Kumbh Mela) have all contributed to the pandemic still holding fort really strong. We need strong community level leadership at every possible level. Anyone with a voice that is heard and respected should advocate for the use of masks, regular handwashing and social distancing. I wish some religious leaders across faiths weren’t so dismissive of the severity of the pandemic; since many people listen to them.

ALSO READ: Ignore Fake News, Vaccines Are A Must

We need to reach out to these leaders so that they can influence their followers. Faith must meet science if we want to overcome the pandemic. Political leaders at centre and state levels need to reach out to every kind of leaders possible, to bring about behaviour changes among the people to eliminate the virus from amidst us. To use a sociological concept, we need to the diffuse ideas of public well-being and precautions so that they become culturally acceptable and thus practiced among large parts of the population. The media plays an important role here.

The onus this second time around is truly on the public. We will keep losing the race to the virus until we follow the basic measures stringently. Lockdowns can only stop inter-cluster exchange or two areas with infection from interacting with each other and thus ceasing a larger spillage, but it may not stop intra-location infections. Nowadays, we have a huge number of people living in societies and apartments. Even if they go out only to buy essential items, but don’t follow basic precautionary measures like masks etc. they can still infect or be infected.

All of us depend on each of us this time. It’s kind of “One for all, all for one” idea! As a Community Medicine expert, I once again want to emphasise that it is the community spirit which will keep us safe and alive. Each one for another! The virus alone is not the real enemy, but our relaxed approach to the virus certainly is! We can weaken it in some time if we strictly follow the rules. The so called herd immunity has not shown promising results in this case, so individual immunity is all we have to turn our communities healthy. If we don’t want another lockdown, let’s bring out masks, sanitisers and the will to keep fighting the contagion – by respecting the social distancing norms. Let us put all efforts to develop a “behavioural herd immunity” this time.

The writer is an epidemiologist at College of Medicine & Sagor Dutta Hospital in Kolkata)

Friendly Neighbourhood Bangladesh@50

Fifty years is a long time, enough to look back and ruminate over the present, and Bangladesh’s emergence after a bloody struggle that changed South Asia’s map in 1971 is a good landmark.

The region has changed, and yet, little has changed if you look at millions living in poverty. Their governments pay them pennies compared to the pounds of preference the few get. Life expectancy has increased, but so have calamities, both natural and man-made.

In geostrategic terms, the heat of Cold War prevails. Russia, the erstwhile Soviet Union’s remnant, is replaced by a more aggressive China that has deep pockets and bigger ambitions. China has already gained access to the oil-rich Gulf and to the Indian Ocean. Ranged on the other side are Joe Biden’s ‘pivot’ and the just-emerging Quad. That lends importance to the largest portion humanity residing in the region.

Both alliances are expensive propositions, also designed to be exclusive. Does one have to join one or the other to stay afloat? During his Bangladesh visit last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected the Southeast Asian model (Asean) for South Asia, suggesting that there can be smart, nuanced tweaking. But only that much, perhaps. He seemed to think beyond trade and transit.

On the ground, however, one can’t really say if South Asia — and the world itself — are a better place to live. Not with Covid-19 and the resultant war over vaccine-ing the pandemic. Not when economies are struggling to revive car manufacturing and civil aviation, but millions walk hundreds of miles to jobless safety of their homes. The contradiction was never so stark when you look back at 1971.

Fifty years ago, the world helped India to feed and shelter ten million refugees pouring in from the then East Pakistan. It responded to India’s huge effort at public diplomacy that brought together the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin and Beatle George Harrison to stage the “Bangladesh” campaign. People like Edward Kennedy chipped in. They sought to open the eyes of the Western governments blinded by cold war compulsions. When Bangladesh was liberated, finally, Andres Malraux called India the “mother”, who embraced her children no matter who they are or where they come from.

ALSO READ: Bangladesh – The Next Asian Tiger

We now live in a world divided by ‘nationalist’ barriers. On the day Modi embarked on his Bangladesh visit, his government told the Supreme Court of India, in the context of the Rohingyas from Myanmar, the current unwanted lot, that India “cannot be the refugee capital of the world.”

At geopolitical level, South Asia remains as divided as it was half-a-century back, depending upon which way you look. Everyone was, and remains, non-aligned – only the movement itself is dead. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) remains dormant, a hostage to India-Pakistan rivalry. Common cultures help maintain a semblance of unity. But they are hostage to faith-based extremism and violence.  Democracy is dodgy, limited to electoral games, while the rich-poor gap keeps widening.

Bangladesh is celebrating fifty year of hard-won independence, which also marks the centenary of its founding leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. At the helm is his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, the longest-serving Premier who has provided political stability and helped unleash economic development, making her country Number One on several human development counts.

But huge challenges confront her, not the least religious extremism in a nation of pious, conservative Muslims. Strong cultural mores, love for Bengali language and the considerable position women enjoy in the country’s economic well-being, give Bangladesh a unique place, not just in South Asia, but also in the Islamic world.

It helps India to stay close to a smaller, but self-assured, neighbour that, under Hasina’s stewardship has been most friendly. The two have learnt to resolve disputes and problems that can naturally arise along a 4,300 km border. Both sides need to work to maintain the high comfort levels in relationship that can grow to provide a role model for the region.

That it took them half-a-century to restore the mutual access that was disrupted after the 1965 India-Pakistan war shows that precious time was lost. With road, rail and sea infrastructure being expanded, the two can build on to mutual and regional advantage.  The Modi visit has seen pacts on vaccines to rains, technology to nuclear power.

Agree, geopolitics cannot be ignored. This is where Modi’s citing the Asean model provides a pointer for closer and wider economic relations. India needs to have a significant role in seeing Bangladesh graduate out of the LDC (less developed country) status in 2026.  

ALSO READ: Bangladesh Must Tick Healthcare Box Now

Defence cooperation where China dominates is almost a new area for India. Past Bangladesh governments have fought shy of Indian defence supplies and cooperation for fear of being attacked as India’s ‘agents’. With her opponents marginalized, Hasina seems to have shed this reservation. India needs to move carefully on this if it wants to compete with the Chinese, given their money power and a better delivery record. Successes with Bangladesh could set examples for India in its neighbourhood.

India has invested billions to earn goodwill in the last decade. Modi did well, with an eye on the future, to offer scholarships to the young and invited entrepreneurs to come and invest in India. Economic interest in each other is the key, if only it can be worked and extended to the larger region. Bangladesh provides the jumping board.  

Both harked back to the past, but in different ways. Modi’s reference to “effort and important role” played by Indira Gandhi in 1971 was niggardly, to say the least. He belittled it further with a “me too” about his own having staged a Satyagraha as a youth. He may have. Mention of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in that context was a party add-on.

Old-timers would recall how opposition leaders those days had adopted postures as per their ideology, picking holes while broadly supporting the Indira government’s efforts. Some impatiently wanted her to launch an instant attack on Pakistan. You can expect only this much grace from our politicos those days, and now, especially with elections in Assam and West Bengal. Mercifully, the Bengali-speaking Assamese, allegedly illegal migrants, were not called ‘termites’ during the current campaign.

The missing link was the Congress, now marginalized at home. It was once a movement in East Bengal during the anti-British struggle and gave prominent leaders to the entire region. The era of Indira Gandhi, Jyoti Basu and Pranab Mukherjee is gone. India, whatever the new leadership, needs to build on it, not belittle it.

The year 1971 was tumultuous. It gave India its first military victory in centuries. It forced surrender of 93,000 soldiers, yet quit it after three months. This remains unique. It gave birth to a nation. Those of us who witnessed it can count themselves lucky.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

RAvi Shaknar at PIB

Social Media Rules: Curtailing Whose Freedom?

Few would deny that the multi-millionaires who control social media outlets have garnered more power than is good for them or for ordinary citizens.

At first glance the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 introduced by the Narendra Modi government appears to be a brave attempt, where others have failed, to bring social media giants into line with other forms of publishing. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc have always insisted that they are merely platforms on which others publish material and so cannot be held responsible for any content that appears.

Public attitudes towards this hand-washing has shifted with the realisation of how damaging ‘fake news’, misogynistic trolling, racism and pornography can be not only to individuals but also to the body politic.

The advent of ‘social’ media has not only enhanced economic activity but also encouraged freedom of expression. It has democratised communication, bringing both heat and light to public discourse. But that invariably means that there is a dark side. There are plenty who will abuse this freedom and who do not or will not recognise that their rights extend only so far as they do not impose on other people’s. There are limitations to freedom of speech which it may require impartial adjudication in law.

One welcome element of these new Rules is the provision of a complaints mechanism, well-advertised and based in India, so that individuals who are maligned may seek redress.

The basis for such complaints has to be common terms of reference and the suggestion is that social media should comply with both the Press Council of India Code and the Programme Code of the 1995 Cable TV Network Regulations.

But that is one of the first major stumbling blocks. If the platform is not the originator of material how can the operators ensure that user-generated content is compliant? In effect they are being asked to take responsibility for literally moderating all material produced by people who may never have heard of these Codes and certainly will have played no part in devising them.

The new Rules require platform operators to advise users they must not flout the constraints placed on them by such Codes, and to swiftly remove content that does not comply, under orders from a court or a government agency.

And that is another major sticking point.

ALSO READ: Reasons Why State Of Indian Media Is Pliable

While the Rules claim, without irony, to be introducing a ‘self-regulatory system’, ultimate power to both define compliance and determine what is and is not acceptable rests with the government.

This applies as much to professional purveyors of news as it does to user-generated content on social media.

Since it is never difficult to find someone willing to complain about items that are critical or in any way challenging of those in power, this has an almost automatic ‘chilling’ impact on publishers of news and views. Self-censorship is quickly seen as the route to survival, and ‘state security’ quickly supersedes the public interest. Autocratic regimes from Belarus and Egypt to Vietnam and Zimbabwe have demonstrated how effectively that can control the news agenda.

The Cybersecurity Administration of China may illustrate the value to power elites of an overarching regulatory regime, but in the murky world of online communications control of news need not be so overt. Ostensibly Vietnam’s Law on Cybersecurity is designed to prevent harm to ‘national security, social order and safety, or the lawful rights and interests of agencies, organisations and individuals’, but in practice it is designed to keep all online traffic in line with the government’s strictures.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh a draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) has been used since 2018 to clamp down on freedom of expression, with journalists jailed and assaulted for criticising the government. 

Something similar is happening in Myanmar where the military junta, not content with ‘disappearing’ journalists off the street, is working on laws to take charge of online content in its bid to crush opposition and identify its critics.

Many may feel relief that under Modi’s model, social media platforms will be expected to take down offensive or sexualised images, but few will happily concede that the government should determine what constitutes unacceptable or derogatory material. The use of key words to identify problematic copy is one of the easiest ways to monitor and thus control content, especially terms which might refer to government policies.

ALSO READ: Freedom Of The Press In India Is A Myth

The administrators of global social media platforms may not be best placed to handle the subtleties of cultural differences, but almost inevitably partisan government departments are certainly not the best arbiters of what is and is not acceptable in public discourse.

Having government officials determine those limits is seriously problematic, especially for journalists whose key task is to hold the powerful to account and to turn a spotlight onto the corrupt and the criminal. In a society riven by religious, political and caste divisions, the existence of both independent journalism and an independent judiciary is paramount to highlighting and determining disputes.

The Information Technology Rules 2021 may be a brave attempt to tackle issues that are perplexing societies around the world, but they are also a recipe for creeping censorship which requires robust scrutiny and resistance to ensure that a diversity of opinions and debate are able to flourish within and beyond the state.

There has been widespread criticism of Modi’s plan in the West, where efforts to control the internet without affecting online news content have also hit the inevitable obstacles.

The European Union is currently wrestling with the complexities of devising a Digital Services Act that will harmonise protection for citizens and consumers across 27 countries without curtailing press freedom. Journalists’ organisations have been vocal in their opposition to anything that might detract from their ability to scrutinise governments, investigate corruption and expose crime. They will be watching to see how their colleagues in India tackle the same issue.

(The author is a UK-based journalist and Honorary Director of The MediaWise Trust, a journalism ethics NGO)

When Deve Gowda Confided In UK PM Against Chidambaram

Heads of state and prime ministers often spend considerable time together during visits and international conferences, but few details of what transpires between them are released, beyond staged photo opportunities or press releases couched in platitudes and diplomatic language. There is an element of extra bonhomie during meetings of world leaders of similar ideologies compared to those between differing or opposing ideologies; for example, it was known that US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared an easier relationship while in office, or President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bonded well.

However, a rare peek into the interaction between two prime ministers of differing political persuasions is now available in recently released confidential documents by National Archives. It relates to the week-long visit to India in January 1997 of Prime Minister John Major (Conservative), when H D Deve Gowda was heading an uneasy coalition of 13 partners in the United Front government. A three-page document from Downing Street set out details as recounted by Major when he, wife Norma Major and Deve Gowda were the only ones present during a 150-minute flight from Kolkata to Bengaluru; no officials were around to take notes

At the time, the United Front government was under considerable strain from inside and outside the coalition, which was reflected in Deve Gowda’s remarks to Major. Described as a “virtually unprecedented degree of access”, the note based on details reported by Major and written by John Holmes in Downing Street to Fiona Mylchreest in the Foreign Office says that Deve Gowda “went out of his way to speak frankly to the Prime Minister, for example about internal difficulties”.

ALSO READ: Resurrecting Menon And His Many Lives

The note says that Deve Gowda and his finance minister P Chidambaram did not always see “eye to eye”, telling Major that Chidambaram was “very good” in the world of finance, but was not inclined to prioritise the problems of rural India, adding that there were “significant strains” within the coalition, explaining how difficult and constraining it was to manage 13 parties.

According to the note, “He (Deve Gowda) told the Prime Minister…Chidambaram was very good but his skills lay in the world of finance and big city life. He was not inclined to give sufficient priority to the problems of rural India”. It adds that he “went on to say that he was very concerned about the future of rural India, and in particular about Indian agriculture…It was clear to the Prime Minister that the way to Deve Gowda’s heart was through extra help for agriculture, for example training, new techniques and assistance of any kind”.

Deve Gowda, who was prime minister between June 1996 and April 1997, went on to make two political claims that were proved wrong in subsequent elections: the note says that he believed at the time that the Congress had been “permanently fractured” and that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “unelectable”.

The note says: “Deve Gowda began with the Indian political scene…He believed that the Congress Party was now permanently fractured and that in the post-dynastic era of Indian politics (he was particularly scathing about the dynasty phenomenon) they could not regroup. The Party was too corrupt and their time had passed. Meanwhile the BJP was unelectable”.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance went on to win two successive elections in 2004 and 2009, while the BJP formed two governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later won majorities in 2014 and 2019. The declassified note suggests that Deve Gowda developed a rapport with Major, who faced a general election back home in May 1997.

ALSO READ: Indian Diaspora In UK Reaches A New High

At a reception in Bengaluru, the note says: “(Deve) Gowda surprised everyone by calling for silence as the Prime Minister was leaving and saying that he was sure everyone present shared his desire to see the Prime Minister win the election (greeted by a round of applause).”

Major’s Conservative party lost the election to Labour led by Tony Blair.

The note adds: “The Prime Minister believes that he has established an excellent personal relationship with (Deve) Gowda, who pressed him and Mrs Major to return to India whenever they wanted, preferably soon. It was noteworthy that Gowda not only came to the reception in Bangalore, but also insisted on coming to see the Prime Minister off, although Indian protocol had insisted beforehand that he could not possibly do either of these things”.