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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Digest the irony (The Telegraph)

Anup Sinha  

With no end to the pandemic in sight, people have now begun to worry about the different kinds of economic and social effects of Covid-19 more than about the disease itself. An impending food crisis is one major consequence that is causing concern across the globe. The World Food Programme of the United Nations has warned that there could be famines of biblical proportions in some parts of the world. India, too, will be affected since South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are two regions that house the world’s largest number of undernourished and malnourished people. It is ironic that there is no aggregate shortage of food in the world. The distribution and access to food, however, cause severe distress. In a terribly unequal world, increasing levels of wastage have been accompanied by food scarcity and hunger.


Hunger is something more than starvation. It is characterized by multiple features among which the shortage in the quantity of food is one dimension. A shortage implies a deficit in the minimum calories intake required by an average person. There are other dimensions as well. Health experts emphasize the need for a balanced diet in which there are optimum amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates along with minerals and vitamins. An absence of this balance causes malnutrition that can have adverse long-term consequences similar to undernutrition when there is a shortage in total availability. Experts also point to the importance of the human body to be able to absorb a food for proper nutrition of the body. Importance is placed on the micronutrients that the human body requires to absorb the food it ingests. Any of these inadequacies can cause long-term damage in terms of brain development, chronic diseases, stunting and wasting through poor bodily development like height and weight. These impacts persist throughout a person’s lifetime.


Hunger has remained familiar to the world despite the increased production of food, better agrarian technology, improvements in trade and communications, and a reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty. There are growing concerns about the shortage of food induced by climate change given its effects on the productivity of land. Crop failures due to erratic weather like floods and droughts are another concern. There is wastage too. Rich countries of the world waste enormous amounts of food through large inventories in supermarkets and as a result of excessive purchase by consumers. The surplus food ends up in garbage dumps. In poor countries like India, there is also food wastage because the nation does not have enough storage facilities that can preserve perishable food like fruits and vegetables. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the global extent of food wastage annually is of the order of 1.3 billion tonnes, which is approximately 33 per cent of the total food produced for human consumption. This quantum is valued at USD 2.6 trillion, and is deemed sufficient to feed about 815 million hungry people. In India, the wastage, according to government sources, is estimated to be around 16-20 per cent of all produce, especially fruits and vegetables and oilseeds. Set against these kinds of wastage, there are parts of the world where many children go to sleep hungry because they get unbalanced or inadequate diets. This has been the crux of the story behind global hunger.


Then the pandemic arrived. Firstly, it seriously disrupted supply chains that reduced the flow of food from the farm and the dairy to the marketplace. Secondly, affluent people who could afford food started to buy in panic; this exacerbated shortages. Thirdly, all of a sudden, a large number of people found their jobs gone, or incomes slashed. This meant that their ability to access food was jeopardized. They had to cut back on quantity as well as quality. Finally, with supply-induced shortages, food prices have begun to rise across the globe. Food inflation is at abnormally high rates from China to the United States of America, from India to Brazil. Those who still have some income left started eating less; those with no income at all had to depend on private charity or on the government to provide food. As the pandemic gets prolonged, the ability of charities and governments to provide support will get weaker. International aid, already lower than last year, will begin to taper off rapidly. There might be a spike in hunger and starvation. According to some experts, the number of deaths from poverty and hunger could begin to surpass the deaths from Covid-19.


According to the World Bank, more than 100 million people have already slipped into extreme poverty since March 2020. The WFP estimates that half-a-billion people might slide back into poverty by the time the pandemic ends. International trade normally moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybeans to feed 2.8 billion people every year. That supply chain is also broken. There is a shortage of migrant workers in certain geographies. The United Kingdom expects to throw out a third of its harvest because of the lack of workers during the harvesting season. The US, in spite of Donald Trump’s paranoia about immigration, has actually eased visa restrictions for temporary help during the harvesting season. Other countries have imposed export restrictions on food grains in an effort to ensure sufficient domestic availability. Out of the 20 worst-hit countries, 17 are in sub-Saharan Africa where the cost of a basic meal has increased to 186 per cent of an average worker’s daily wage. According to Oxfam, 55 million people in 7 countries are facing famine-like conditions. In India, there are now 38,000 relief camps where 16 million are fed on a daily basis. It is estimated that 196 million people in India suffer from food insecurity. In the US, for the first time since the Great Depression, there are food banks where many people are going for the first time in their lives. 2020 had been a remarkably bad year in many ways. The pandemic, the economic collapse, backtracking on climate-change policies, freak weather patterns, forest fires and pests like the locust swarm — all of these do not bode well for the near future. This year may turn out to be a slow-motion replay of 2020.


There is no aggregate shortage yet. It is all about reaching food to the right people at the right time and at the right price. However, policymakers across the world appear callous, turning more authoritarian and less democratic. They do not care too much about the weakest. Weakness is something to be abhorred and denounced. Yet hunger affects the weakest most severely. On the other side of food insecurity, one can see an added dose of food wastage by people who can afford food. There are new types of processed food being tried out. Additional food is stockpiled by online orders, new recipes are tried and exchanged, and many people in this economic class complain about putting on weight from eating too much during the pandemic-induced restrictions on physical movements. That is the story of roughly the top 10 per cent. The majority of the remaining 90 per cent remain on the edge of hunger. A few grow fat and rich even as millions of lives are wasted.


The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Different promises: New Year resolutions (The Telegraph)

Suhashini Sarkar 

People notoriously fail to stick to New Year’s resolutions, and this year it may be even harder. Common New Year’s resolutions each year include exercising more, losing weight, saving money, spending less time on social media, spending more time with family and so on. A job website analyzed Google trends and found that for 2021, the most common resolution across states in the United States of America was to seek therapy. The second common one was to lose weight. Therapy was the top goal in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee ( notice the lack of any West Coast states here). 


It is not surprising that therapy trended high this year considering the roller coaster ride that 2020 was. Many people experienced the same things: losing jobs, stressing over a presidential election and binge-watching Netflix. In Alaska, Kansas, Oregon and Washington, “better sleep” trended as a goal for 2021. Dating was a common trend in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Utah.


The new year was rung in without the usual crowds. The Times Square bash honoured the frontline workers who have risked their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. Las Vegas, New York City and Miami are usually the most popular destinations for New Year’s Eve, but this time celebrations were subdued or cancelled.



For the people


Martin Luther King, Jr Day is celebrated on the third Monday of every year. Most businesses are closed and the federal government is off as well on this day as people come together to honour and remember civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. The proposition to mark this day as a federal holiday was introduced in the late 1960s, but did not come into effect until decades later. It was finally nationally recognized in 2000. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, continued to fight for the approval of the holiday and testified before Congress multiple times. In fact, in Alabama and Mississippi, it coincides with Robert E. Lee Day, which celebrates the life of a Confederate general. 

 

MLK’s birthday is actually on January 15, but was designated to fall on the third Monday every year owing to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that was signed into law in 1968, owing to which federal holidays, including Memorial Day and George Washington’s birthday, fall on a Monday to allow families to travel to visit each other. MLK is known both as a national hero of democracy and a civil rights activist. He fought for equality for the black American community through peaceful protests. He was assassinated at the age of 39. This year, several events have been cancelled owing to the pandemic, impending storms and predicted protests in all 50 states in the wake of the US Capitol riots. The 26th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service will take place on January 18, the largest MLK Day event in the US. This year the theme is the Covid-19 health crisis.


Stop the hate


After the assault on the US Capitol building, the power and responsibility of social media companies have become contentious issues. There is little doubt that the president, Donald Trump, leveraged Twitter and Facebook to reach his supporters. During the attack, he even posted a now deleted Tweet calling the rioters ‘special people’. But now Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are pushing back. They suspended Trump’s accounts, first temporarily, then permanently, preventing him from tweeting even under other account names. This spurred a debate on free speech, with Conservatives slamming Twitter for obstructing First Amendment rights. However, the amendment does not apply to private businesses such as Twitter or Facebook. In the midst of this, a social media application called Parler, tailored for far-right conservatives, has emerged. Unlike Twitter, Parler allows speech with no monitoring. It became one of the most downloaded apps until the App Store, Google Play store and even Amazon Web Services kicked it off their platforms.


Peace over violence


 Every January, US cities organize and participate in the Women’s March. This year, not only are the marches cancelled owing to the pandemic, but it was prefaced by domestic terrorism at the US Capitol carried out by several members belonging to far-right groups. The Women’s March has been the largest single-day demonstration in the US. The march is completely peaceful with a goal to vent frustrations about inequality and advocate for basic human rights — not only for women but for every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation. It is in sharp contrast to the events of January 6 in which people also came to protest, but with pipe bombs and zip ties.


 The fourth annual 2021 Womxn’s March on Raleigh will be a virtual march on January 23, live for 12 hours. The theme is ‘Onward Together’ with a focus on community organization. The Women’s March Foundation issued a statement saying it would be “irresponsible” to organize a march “in the face of these issues and it is imperative to keep our communities safe”. With Kamala Harris becoming the country’s first woman vice-president, there is more to celebrate this year.


Footnote


If you need some motivation to go get a Covid-19 test done, that motivation could be wine. The City Winery in New York has creatively adapted the new ‘no indoor dining’ policy by transforming its venue into a Covid test zone. The promotion, now expired, gave you a free Covid test with the purchase of a case of wine. It also added a $50 Covid rapid test for anyone who wanted to dine indoors. The promotion was in partnership with Accurex Diagnostic Services, which is overseeing and administering all of the 15-minute rapid tests.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

The case of Afghanistan’s future (The Telegraph)

T.C.A. Raghavan  

The drama at the Capitol in Washington obscured the resumption of the intra-Afghan dialogue with the second round between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan beginning last week. The first round extended for some three months and ended in December with an agreement on the ‘Rules of Procedure’ and an exchange of issues that each side wanted the talks to focus on.


How the first round is evaluated in terms of success or failure depends largely on where you stand on what is happening in Afghanistan today. For some, the intra-Afghan process is no more than a sideshow to the main event — what the United States of America will do in the coming months given that it has to have closure on its longest-ever military intervention. For others, that warring Afghan parties are discussing and negotiating ways forward is a huge plus and significant in itself.


The differences between the two sides are vast. The Taliban is committed to an ‘Emirate’ as the only legitimate government of the future. This puts in jeopardy the entire Afghanistan project as constituted following the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001. Thus, from the outside, the difference between the two sides appears insurmountable — how do you reconcile an ‘Islamic Republic’ with an ‘Islamic Emirate’? Yet, Afghanistan from the outside is not the same as Afghanistan from the inside. Merely securing an end to the conflict seems to be to many enough of a common ground to smoothen the interface between these two rival, competing, and conflicting ideas of Afghanistan.  


The road ahead in the second round of negotiations could, therefore, be even bumpier. The area where progress is the least is on the cessation of hostilities and violence. For the government of Afghanistan, a ceasefire is an obvious accompaniment to the negotiations. For the Taliban, this is putting the cart before the horse: the ceasefire can only be the outcome of a successful negotiation. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan continue and, increasingly, the targets are soft ones — the very institutions and personalities that have emerged as a result of the construction of a new State in Afghanistan over the past two decades.  


The ‘Rules of Procedure’ on which agreement was reached between the two sides in the first round of negotiations include formal protocol arrangements. It was agreed that discussions must begin with a recitation from the holy Quran and that meetings must have periodic breaks for the five daily prayers. Provisions such as these possibly would not have been the cause of any dispute.  More difficult was the issue of the legal framework that would be used to resolve disagreements during the process of negotiations. The Taliban demand was that this framework had to be based on Sunni jurisprudence. This would exclude the Shia minorities and was an obvious point of contention for the government side. What is significant perhaps is that a way out was found: a joint committee comprising members from both sides would resolve differences that came up. 


In the protracted negotiations that led to the agreed ‘Rules of Procedure’, what was at stake was more than the positions that each side took with respect to Afghan religious and political traditions. For those concerned about the steady deterioration in Afghanistan’s security and the gloomy forecasts that now invariably accompany most sober analysis of its future, these negotiations are a diversion. The stark reality that confronts the country today is that the Taliban insurgency with Pakistan’s support has gained an upper hand and that this position will progressively strengthen.  


What will happen in the next round of discussions? It is reasonable to expect some kind of zeroing-in on the principal issues highlighted by both sides — a ceasefire for the Afghan government and an ‘Islamic’ government for the Taliban. Already, there are reports accumulating of the US and others pushing for an interim government to take charge in Kabul to enable a ceasefire to be put in place. It remains to be seen how this works out but clearly some changes in the present architecture in Kabul were to be expected from the time the US and the Taliban reached an agreement on ‘bringing peace to Afghanistan’ in February last year. Alongside this is the concomitant increase in Pakistan’s influence. This is in large part because of the traditional role that Pakistan has played with the Taliban but it also arises from its role in bringing the Taliban and the US on converging tracks. How much this influence will be and how it will play out given the problems Pakistan is facing domestically with the visible alienation of, and protests emanating from, Pakistani Pashtuns are real issues. But these will only surface over a longer time span.  


Afghanistan’s best-case scenario is that the Taliban is actually negotiating in good faith and will play its part in a future power-sharing arrangement in that spirit. This case rests on the premise that large sections amongst the Taliban are as weary of the constant violence as everyone else and are, therefore, agreeable to reasonable compromises. Mullah Barader, the deputy leader of the Taliban and head of its political office, is seen as a moderate and as someone long regarded as being open to a political settlement on the basis of compromising with the government of Afghanistan. The arguments against are powerful and, primarily, allege that the intra-Afghan negotiations are the outcome of war weariness and exhaustion not so much of the warring Afghans as of the US. Afghanistan’s history is replete with illustrations of the fragility of externally determined agendas.


With a new administration on the anvil in the US, how one future milestone is approached may provide some clues. The February 2020 agreement between the US and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) specified the withdrawal of all US forces by May 2021. How the new US administration will work with this commitment of its predecessor is also going to be a matter of some weight for what happens next in Afghanistan.


Details apart, what stands out also are older continuities from Afghanistan’s recent history. In 1988, Pakistan and the then government of Afghanistan had signed the Geneva Accord — a face-saving arrangement to enable the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops. The agreement was co-signed as guarantors by the US and the USSR. The US premised its signature on this with the condition that the signature did not mean recognition of the government of Afghanistan — one of the signatories. The 2020 agreement with the Taliban is similarly premised on the stipulation that the agreement does not imply recognition. In diplomatic practice, such ambiguities of engagement without recognition are not unusual. Yet, in Afghanistan’s case, they put an additional burden on the already troubled future ahead.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Digest the irony (The Telegraph)

Anup Sinha  

With no end to the pandemic in sight, people have now begun to worry about the different kinds of economic and social effects of Covid-19 more than about the disease itself. An impending food crisis is one major consequence that is causing concern across the globe. The World Food Programme of the United Nations has warned that there could be famines of biblical proportions in some parts of the world. India, too, will be affected since South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are two regions that house the world’s largest number of undernourished and malnourished people. It is ironic that there is no aggregate shortage of food in the world. The distribution and access to food, however, cause severe distress. In a terribly unequal world, increasing levels of wastage have been accompanied by food scarcity and hunger.


Hunger is something more than starvation. It is characterized by multiple features among which the shortage in the quantity of food is one dimension. A shortage implies a deficit in the minimum calories intake required by an average person. There are other dimensions as well. Health experts emphasize the need for a balanced diet in which there are optimum amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates along with minerals and vitamins. An absence of this balance causes malnutrition that can have adverse long-term consequences similar to undernutrition when there is a shortage in total availability. Experts also point to the importance of the human body to be able to absorb a food for proper nutrition of the body. Importance is placed on the micronutrients that the human body requires to absorb the food it ingests. Any of these inadequacies can cause long-term damage in terms of brain development, chronic diseases, stunting and wasting through poor bodily development like height and weight. These impacts persist throughout a person’s lifetime.


Hunger has remained familiar to the world despite the increased production of food, better agrarian technology, improvements in trade and communications, and a reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty. There are growing concerns about the shortage of food induced by climate change given its effects on the productivity of land. Crop failures due to erratic weather like floods and droughts are another concern. There is wastage too. Rich countries of the world waste enormous amounts of food through large inventories in supermarkets and as a result of excessive purchase by consumers. The surplus food ends up in garbage dumps. In poor countries like India, there is also food wastage because the nation does not have enough storage facilities that can preserve perishable food like fruits and vegetables. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the global extent of food wastage annually is of the order of 1.3 billion tonnes, which is approximately 33 per cent of the total food produced for human consumption. This quantum is valued at USD 2.6 trillion, and is deemed sufficient to feed about 815 million hungry people. In India, the wastage, according to government sources, is estimated to be around 16-20 per cent of all produce, especially fruits and vegetables and oilseeds. Set against these kinds of wastage, there are parts of the world where many children go to sleep hungry because they get unbalanced or inadequate diets. This has been the crux of the story behind global hunger.



Then the pandemic arrived. Firstly, it seriously disrupted supply chains that reduced the flow of food from the farm and the dairy to the marketplace. Secondly, affluent people who could afford food started to buy in panic; this exacerbated shortages. Thirdly, all of a sudden, a large number of people found their jobs gone, or incomes slashed. This meant that their ability to access food was jeopardized. They had to cut back on quantity as well as quality. Finally, with supply-induced shortages, food prices have begun to rise across the globe. Food inflation is at abnormally high rates from China to the United States of America, from India to Brazil. Those who still have some income left started eating less; those with no income at all had to depend on private charity or on the government to provide food. As the pandemic gets prolonged, the ability of charities and governments to provide support will get weaker. International aid, already lower than last year, will begin to taper off rapidly. There might be a spike in hunger and starvation. According to some experts, the number of deaths from poverty and hunger could begin to surpass the deaths from Covid-19.


According to the World Bank, more than 100 million people have already slipped into extreme poverty since March 2020. The WFP estimates that half-a-billion people might slide back into poverty by the time the pandemic ends. International trade normally moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybeans to feed 2.8 billion people every year. That supply chain is also broken. There is a shortage of migrant workers in certain geographies. The United Kingdom expects to throw out a third of its harvest because of the lack of workers during the harvesting season. The US, in spite of Donald Trump’s paranoia about immigration, has actually eased visa restrictions for temporary help during the harvesting season. Other countries have imposed export restrictions on food grains in an effort to ensure sufficient domestic availability. Out of the 20 worst-hit countries, 17 are in sub-Saharan Africa where the cost of a basic meal has increased to 186 per cent of an average worker’s daily wage. According to Oxfam, 55 million people in 7 countries are facing famine-like conditions. In India, there are now 38,000 relief camps where 16 million are fed on a daily basis. It is estimated that 196 million people in India suffer from food insecurity. In the US, for the first time since the Great Depression, there are food banks where many people are going for the first time in their lives. 2020 had been a remarkably bad year in many ways. The pandemic, the economic collapse, backtracking on climate-change policies, freak weather patterns, forest fires and pests like the locust swarm — all of these do not bode well for the near future. This year may turn out to be a slow-motion replay of 2020.


There is no aggregate shortage yet. It is all about reaching food to the right people at the right time and at the right price. However, policymakers across the world appear callous, turning more authoritarian and less democratic. They do not care too much about the weakest. Weakness is something to be abhorred and denounced. Yet hunger affects the weakest most severely. On the other side of food insecurity, one can see an added dose of food wastage by people who can afford food. There are new types of processed food being tried out. Additional food is stockpiled by online orders, new recipes are tried and exchanged, and many people in this economic class complain about putting on weight from eating too much during the pandemic-induced restrictions on physical movements. That is the story of roughly the top 10 per cent. The majority of the remaining 90 per cent remain on the edge of hunger. A few grow fat and rich even as millions of lives are wasted.


The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The patriots (The Telegraph)

Prabhat Patnaik  

We are witnessing a bizarre situation. One comes across instances where consumers want growing of food crops for supplying to the public distribution system, while producers, lured by the apparent gains of shifting to cash crops, are reluctant to do so. The government has to mediate between these conflicting interests. But in India at present, the farmers have no desire to shift from food crops, even as consumers want food crops to be supplied through the public distribution system. There is no conflict of interest among them that the government has to mediate between. And, yet, it is imposing a shift on farmers from food to cash crops that would destroy the public distribution system.


Such a shift is precisely what the agricultural legislations aim to bring about. Government economists defending the laws have been emphasizing the benefits of such a shift. The government here is not mediating in a conflict of interests among the people; it has, apparently, its own interest, which it is imposing on the people, on farmers and consumers alike, against which the farmers are agitating in the bitter cold of Delhi. It is a bizarre case of government versus the people at large, not people versus people.


Likewise, the farmers are unanimous in rejecting contract farming; and, yet, the government is pushing contract farming through these bills, ostensibly in the farmers’ interest. Again, it is a case not of the government responding to the demand from any section of the people; it has apparently its own interest which it is imposing on the people.


But what could be its own interest? While it is obvious that its own interest coincides with the interest of corporates and international agribusiness, the government’s answer would be that it is upholding the ‘national interest’. Corporate interest is thus identified with ‘national interest’. This has been the hallmark of the Narendra Modi regime, and it is symptomatic of the Corporate-Hindutva alliance of which Modi is the architect and which keeps him in power.


The bizarreness of the situation is this: even right-wing governments justify their pro-corporate policies by claiming to defend the interest of some section of the people. Margaret Thatcher’s attack on trade unions was defended by her as a means of controlling inflation that trade unions allegedly caused and that hurt large masses of the people. But in India we are seeing the unilateral and gratuitous imposition of a set of measures that no segment of the people has ever demanded, measures that portend the dismantling of the public distribution system, which is opposed by people at large, and against which vast numbers are vehemently protesting; all this just to promote corporate interest. This is unprecedented in a democracy.


The government will claim that since it won the 2019 parliamentary elections, it has the mandate to bring in the ‘reforms’ it wants. But this is erroneous for several reasons. First, it is wrong in principle: winning an election does not give the government the mandate to do whatever it likes. Second, this is especially so because the 2019 elections were not fought on the issue of ‘agricultural reforms’. In fact, these reforms never figured in the ruling party’s electioneering, which focused on the Pulwama attack and the Balakot air-strikes. Third, there has been a commoditization of politics where even having a majority in the legislature has lost much significance. 


Fighting elections itself has become extraordinarily expensive. Causing defections from the opponents before elections has become common and is also expensive. And no matter who wins the election, defections are engineered from other parties for a price to get the required majority to form the government. For all these reasons, the party with the largest amount of money has a clear edge over the others; and since the corporates are the main source of such money, forging an alliance with them becomes essential for coming to power for which they have to be offered a quid pro quo. Hindutva forces, with their communal-polarizing agenda and corporate financial backing, can exercise hegemony in such a world of commoditized politics. The quid pro quo offered to them includes, inter alia, control over peasant agriculture.


While corporates as a whole gain from such ascendancy, one segment among them, an upstart segment, usually gains more than the other, more established, segments. Daniel Guérin (Fascism and Big Business) had shown that in Germany in the 1930s, a segment of monopoly capital, engaged in producing armaments and producer goods, had become special beneficiaries of the corporate alliance with the Nazis compared to the older segment engaged in textiles and consumer goods. In Japan, new houses, the shinko zaibatsu, benefited more than older houses like Mitsui from the fascistic regime that came to power in 1931, with which the corporates had close relations. While contemporary India is different from 1930s Germany or Japan, a similar privileging of a segment of new corporate houses can be detected here too. This is attracting the special ire of the farmers.


Modi prepared the ground for identifying corporate interest, especially the interest of this nouveau segment, with the national interest by calling the corporates “wealth creators”. He meant the ‘nation’s’ wealth. By this description alone, he raised amassing private wealth into a national service, and those who amassed such wealth into privileged members of the ‘nation’ whose interest deserved the highest priority. It followed that all segments of the population must be made to accede to the demands of these upstart corporates; it is in the interest of the population itself, as wealth-amassing by these corporates supposedly benefits all. 


The Modi government has thus inverted the concept of the ‘nation’, from an entity identified with the people to one identified with the corporates, especially the nouveau corporates. The agriculture bills give expression to this inversion.


This, however, constitutes a betrayal of our anti-colonial struggle. The concept of the ‘nation’ that had developed in Europe in the wake of the Westphalian Peace Treaties in the seventeenth century had been imperialist, non-inclusive (it had located an “internal enemy”), and, supposedly, deserving of apotheosis by the people who were only supposed to make sacrifices for it. By contrast, anti-colonial nationalism in countries like India was a very different sui generis, phenomenon. It saw the nation as being inclusive, of which secularism was an integral part; and it saw the raison d’être of the nation in improving the lives of the people. The concept of the nation implicit in the Modi government’s understanding is the very opposite of this and is closer to the aggrandizing concept of Europe whose logical culmination was fascism.


The peasants gathered around Delhi are opposing the Modi government’s world-view in every respect. They are upholding secularism, as is evident from the fact that Hindu, Sikh and Muslim peasants are standing shoulder to shoulder. They are, in their opposition to corporate encroachment on agriculture, denying the identification of the ‘nation’ with a bunch of corporate houses. By standing up for the public distribution system, they are seeing the raison d’être of the nation as consisting in serving the people. The peasant movement is reclaiming the concept of the nation from the Modi government that had hijacked it.


The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Troubled legacies (The Telegraph)

Ruchir Joshi    

In early 1979, the US-backed Pahlavi regime was overthrown in Iran, bringing Ayatollah Khomeini to power. In November '79, Americans in the US embassy in Tehran were taken hostage; a month later, Soviet troops brazenly rolled into Afghanistan. In America, these events were widely perceived as national humiliations, ensuring that Jimmy Carter — one of the most decent and thoughtful men to occupy the White House — became a one-term president.


Forty years ago this month, Ronald Reagan, a B-grade Hollywood actor, a know-nothing and clumsy blusterer, took oath as president of the United States of America. Over the next eight years, Reagan and his Republican Party minders normalized several things that were, till then, only latent in American politics. Chief among these was the acceptance in top Republican political circles that a US president had no need for any great intellectual ability, he could get away with being a TV-friendly ‘face’, a constructed icon and a delivery-vehicle for vote-winning rhetoric, while his shadowy manipulators executed the agenda of the rich and the powerful. 


Attached to this was the rebooting of naked American jingoism, the motto of ‘My country, right or wrong’, that had taken a much-deserved beating in the 1960s and 1970s. In this, Reagan and his cohorts were helped by the falling of historical dice. As the US government propped up all sorts of brutally murderous gangs — from the Contras in Nicaragua to the Apartheid fascists in South Africa to Zia in Pakistan and, via him, the Afghan mujahideen, which, later, mutated into al Qaida and the Taliban — the Soviet Union began to collapse under its own contradictions and deep-seated rot. By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet game was up and the Reaganites were quick to claim undeserved credit for the demise of the ‘Evil Empire’.


If American jingoism was projected shamelessly around the world, the Thatcher-Reagan economic mantra of selfishness and ‘me-first’ was disseminated equally forcefully at home, repeatedly convincing voters that the ‘trickle-down’ theory was not actually a monumental fraud perpetrated on a majority of Americans but a viable economic policy. The great public programmes stemming from the FDR years and the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were ruthlessly shrunk. The idea that civil rights, education, healthcare and economic opportunity should all be increasingly available to the underprivileged of the richest country in the world was relentlessly attacked and dismantled. Alongside this began a set of surreptitious programmes aiming to narrow the voting rights for African-Americans and other historically deprived minorities because the Republicans understood fully well that poor people of colour were unlikely to vote for a party that was aiming to keep them poor indefinitely.  


When Reagan came to power, the 15 richest Americans made on average 27 times more than that of the bottom 50 per cent. Today, the top 1 per cent makes 81 times more than that of the bottom half of the US population. Such is the absurd momentum of what Reagan and his minders set in motion and so hard has it been to reverse in the 16 years of Democratic presidencies since 1981 (presidencies not often blessed with a Democrat majority House or Senate) that in 2018 the top 400 Americans paid a lower effective tax rate (23 per cent) on their incomes than the bottom 50 per cent (which paid 24.2 per cent). 


The story, however, can’t be understood only through the lens of economic data. 


I was newly at my strongly left-leaning liberal arts college in Vermont when Reagan defeated Carter. My campus, often visited by the local activist, Bernie Sanders, went into mourning. I was flummoxed as to how a country could choose an obvious shyster like Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. When I got to America, I imagined I had arrived into one of the most advanced zones of knowledge in the history of humanity. In one sense, this was absolutely true: areas of the US were home to the most complex study of science in the world, the most advanced medical institutions, the most sophisticated and nuanced milieus of social sciences, arts and culture. Yet, it quickly became apparent that a frightening number of Americans across all classes were abysmally ignorant about the world, many of them steeped in archaic beliefs that would be right at home in the most backward village in India; with a shock, I realized that a huge surplus of money and comfort did not necessarily equal being educated or knowledgeable; this last I already knew from many people of my own class at home, I just did not expect to find the same disjunction in America.


Twenty years later, by the time the ‘hanging chads’ ‘swung’ the election in favour of George Dubya Bush, I had no reserves of surprise left; I felt only dismay and horror. Al Gore and George W. Bush were both from elite American colleges, but by then I knew that an Ivy League education didn’t matter in US politics. Gore might be the thinking and informed man that he was, but the cloddish Bush had the larger silver spoon and his daddy’s posse of devious back room politicos. The people who had voted Reagan into power and their ideological children had now voted in another ignorant, narrow-minded puppet of wealthy manipulators, even if it was by a questionable, hair-thin margin. Till another silver-spooner took the presidential oath four years ago, I thought Bush Junior was the worst person to have as American president when 9/11 happened. After a week or two of Trump’s presidency, I found myself being grateful Trump hadn’t been in charge in 2001.  


The sad tragedy is that the mix of the uneducated poor and the privileged cynics weren’t the only people who brought Dubya B and Donald T to power. Even after the devastations of the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for Trump’s continuation. Among them, for instance, was Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state for Georgia and the administrative ‘hero’ of the Georgia elections, who, from all evidence, is neither uneducated nor ignorant. They voted for Trump despite the horrific separation of children from immigrant parents; despite Trump’s backing of neo-Nazis and murderously racist police; despite strong indications that Trump had treasonously conspired with Russians to cheat himself into the presidency.


 The mob that broke into the Capitol on January 6 was, arguably, a fringe of the crazed, stupid people that you find in any country, but it was also the tip of an iceberg that runs 40 million Americans deep, as in the number of Trump voters who believe — on no evidence whatsoever — that the election was stolen from them. Those people and their worldview are the throbbing legacies of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dubya Bush. Anyone who has studied recent American history should stay worried, very worried.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

A green new deal (The Telegraph)

Mahesh Rangarajan   

As the dust clears after the US elections, the preferred choice of most of its 160 million voters lies clearly with Joseph Biden for president. Among the issues that Biden faces is the place and role of the United States of America in the ecological challenge that confronts his country and the world at large. Not only does the US have the largest economy and scientific base but it also has, since 1945, on some occasions set the tone for international cooperation, often for the lack of it.


The environmental question has been a key theme in the campaign and led to the surge of younger voters to the Democrat cause. It is not about beauty, health and nature as much as a new way of crafting growth to minimize a negative impact on the economy and the ecology.


Varshini Prakash, one of the articulate young campaigners and authors, writes evocatively how a Green New Deal is the “common-sense solution”. It is no coincidence that Franklin D. Roosevelt is evoked even in the name. History shows us why. But it also offers caution in reading too much by way of parallel.


FDR was not only the president of the US from March 1933 till his death in April 1945 on the eve of victory in the Second World War. He was also the architect of the New Deal, an all-out effort to get the country’s economy on its feet in the wake of the Great Depression. From the start, the New Deal had what would today be called an environmental dimension. In March 1933, in his very first month in office, he called for the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which, without interfering with normal employment, would focus on specific tasks. “[F]orestry, the preventing of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects” were singled out by Roosevelt. The “vast army of the unemployed” would diminish in numbers and also find purpose and direction in the service of the common good of all Americans.


The Congress responded positively: after all the Democrats had taken control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In his first hundred days, over a quarter of a million men were put to work. The historian of the presidency and its relation to environment, Douglas Brinkley, sees the core task of the early days of the Corps as restoring ecological integrity to public lands.


By 1942, when it was finally wound down, the CCC, as it was widely known, had on its rolls over three million men who had planted no less than two billion trees. They also enabled the expansion of state parks, including those in the south in states such as Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Afforestation and landscaping meant hard manual labour, but they also implied a wage of 30 dollars a month and resulted in esprit de corps. 


The New Deal went even further after the ‘Dust Bowl’ in the Great Plains in 1934 and led to the creation of the Soil Conservation Service, which outlived the CCC. In his book, The Green New Deal, Professor Fred C. Mahler estimates that over 150,000 miles of contour furrows were laid down by the new service that also built over 300,000 check dams in just under a decade. 


FDR was a hard-nosed politician. In his 1936 re-election bid, he often referred to the work of the Service in planning shelter belts and combating soil erosion in the mid-West. He reached out even further. The jobless planted trees and engaged in public works, the state parks made recreation possible for middle class Americans, while the farmers got price support as well as help to fight soil erosion.


FDR and his plans aroused deep animosity among the defenders of the free market. The interior secretary, Harold L. Ickes, had to feistily rebut those who said that the government action amounted to nothing less than a “Bolshevist threat to democracy”. 


There is no doubt that there were strains in the new rainbow coalition. While many African-Americans were engaged in the CCC, their camps were segregated. This was most so in the Deep South, the former home of the Confederates of the US Civil War. African-Americans did gain enormously from public employment under Roosevelt but it was on unequal terms. The Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Valley state parks, developed with federal money, enriched local contractors and voters — all white, of course.


Despite the efforts of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, few women were enlisted in the Corps, which projected masculine vigour as force for the good. The women numbered less than 10,000 and were paid a fraction of men’s wages in the CCC.


Roosevelt was a man of his times, but he left a mark on America as on the world as he emerged as a key leader in the war-time alliance against the Axis powers. He led America away and out of isolation to the brink of global power by the time of his death. His environmental as well as his political record has long been claimed by American leaders in the hope of carving out a place in history. It was a Texas Congressman and FDR loyalist, Lyndon Johnson, who in the mid-sixties came up with the slogan of “Great Society” to end poverty and race discrimination in the country. Both had key environmental dimensions manifest in access to clean water and sanitation and the siting of chemical dumps in minority neighbourhoods.


But the sad fact is that the last half century and more have seen a return of not just barely-veiled racism but also fiscal conservatism. It is no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, the leader of the New Right, wanted a leaner government and also less environmental regulation. As governor of California, he had long opposed the expansion of the Redwood National Park. Those who have seen one Redwood, opponents chanted, have seen them all. Such ideas found open expression in the Donald Trump years more than ever before.


Biden, therefore, has a tightrope walk up ahead. His own victory by six million votes owes much to the students, unions, women and minorities who not only turned out to vote but also mobilized and enlisted voters. 


A Green New Deal may be watered down by a Congressional leadership which, in any case, was a late-comer to the idea. Further, there will be voices urging against regulation lest it weakens US industry vis-à-vis China or Europe.


There are two major differences with the 1930s. FDR not only knew the pulse of his people; he also took charge when his opponents had run out of steam. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, even he was unable to overcome isolationism but on the domestic front his agenda had taken over the public space.


Biden has his work cut out. To reach out to the Rust Belt, working class Americans and do so while wooing business support is hard enough. Is a Green New Deal a bridge too far? The world’s eyes are on Washington.


The author teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Deep impressions (The Telegraph)

 Sameena Dalwai  

Anandibai Joshi got her medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886 which she attained after showing tremendous courage and fortitude in facing opposition, travelling alone to the United States of America at the age of 17, living among strangers for four years and completing a gruelling medical course. Married in childhood, she had suffered a painful childbirth and the loss of her infant son by the age of 12, which had taken a heavy toll on her health. She passed away just before she turned 22 due to tuberculosis, which worsened during the long sea voyage from America to Bombay.

Anandibai Joshi got her medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886 which she attained after showing tremendous courage and fortitude in facing opposition, travelling alone to the United States of America at the age of 17, living among strangers for four years and completing a gruelling medical course. Married in childhood, she had suffered a painful childbirth and the loss of her infant son by the age of 12, which had taken a heavy toll on her health. She passed away just before she turned 22 due to tuberculosis, which worsened during the long sea voyage from America to Bombay. 


The first female doctors in Indian history leave a deep impression. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, these brilliant women carried the zeal of providing medical assistance to their hapless sisters dying during childbirth. Anandibai Joshi got her medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886 which she attained after showing tremendous courage and fortitude in facing opposition, travelling alone to the United States of America at the age of 17, living among strangers for four years and completing a gruelling medical course. Married in childhood, she had suffered a painful childbirth and the loss of her infant son by the age of 12, which had taken a heavy toll on her health. She passed away just before she turned 22 due to tuberculosis, which worsened during the long sea voyage from America to Bombay.


Rukhmabai was the next gynaecology surgeon who had earlier become famous for her refusal to cohabit with her husband as “it was a child marriage and her consent was not asked.” The British court and the conservative Hindu had agreed that kanyadaan means the gifting of a virgin daughter from father to groom; her consent was thus irrelevant. This case was widely publicized in India, England and the US, and was instrumental in the passage of the Age of Consent Act, 1891. Rukhmabai was saved from going to prison by the Sutar panchayat in Bombay after the payment of a hefty fine to the husband. She then went to the Royal Free Hospital in London and became a doctor in 1894.


Rashid Jahan was a doctor, communist and writer. Born in 1905 in Aligarh, she studied in Lucknow and Delhi and was at the helm of the Progressive Writers’ Association and the movement led by the Indian People’s Theatre Association. While practising gynaecology, she witnessed the horror of women’s health and presented it through her stories. Women in her stories speak about unending cycles of cumbersome pregnancies and excruciating deliveries as well as of the obligation of wives to satisfy the sexual hunger of husbands. She had made prostitutes heroines of her poignant short stories before Saadat Hasan Manto did.


All these women faced societal opposition and derision. Apart from her husband, Anandibai had no emotional ties left in India as her decision to study abroad had turned her relatives and well-wishers away. Rukhmabai came back to Maharashtra but was not welcomed. She accepted a medical position first in Surat and then in Rajkot. She returned to Mumbai only after her retirement. Rashid Jahan was named ‘Angareywali’ and received threats that her nose would be cut off after her stories were published in an explosive Urdu book, Angarey (Embers), 1932. Her father’s school for girls was termed as a house of pleasure.


The similarity of their life experiences ends here.


Rashid Jahan lived a full life surrounded by a circle of friends, associates and admirers. Her parents and siblings supported her wholeheartedly. She was married to a fellow communist, Mahmuduz Zaffar, and her house became a space for shayaris, plays and stories. Faiz Ahmad Faiz found his communist moorings along with Jahan. Ismat Chughtai adored her and declared, “Rashidapa spoke about everything boldly and loudly. I just wanted to imitate her.” 


In contrast, our Maharashtrian Hindu heroines lived lonely lives. Even Pandita Ramabai, a dazzling personality, scholar of Sanskrit, the author of High Caste Hindu Woman, had only one friend left in Mahatma Phule. When she converted to Christianity, her circle of reformists disowned her. She started the Mukti mission and the Sharada Sadan ashram near Pune and lived out her life surrounded by orphaned, destitute girls and young widows. 


Women always pay a severe cost for their choices. Either you live as a ‘good woman’ as society ordains or live a lonely life on the periphery. But not Rashid Jahan. While the conservative Muslim community and Urdu press abhorred her, her family and comrades enveloped her in warmth and humour. The communist value system played a role in this, as did progressive Islam. When I read her biography as also those of other women writers in Urdu, I wondered where the myth of the Muslim woman as victim comes from? Each social group has its archaic orthodox faction and the progressive liberal stream. We choose to focus on one or the other.


‘Why do Muslim girls not marry Hindu boys?’ we are asked repeatedly despite no statistical evidence to prove the claim that Hindu women marrying Muslim men are more in proportion than vice-versa. This is because the debate about Muslim women is currently limited to marriage, divorce — triple talaq — and the hijab/burqa. But surely women ought to have more than marriage and clothes? What about their education, health, mobility? The Sachar Committee report shows us that since 1947, Muslims have sunk lower on all development indices; their employment rates in the formal sector are abysmal and access to education is inadequate. The Ajlaf or lower caste Muslims, who were artisans of once flourishing trades, have sunk lower than Hindu Dalits who, in 1947, were severely destitute and exploited. The rapid communalization of politics and public life has further marginalized and terrorized them. How will Muslim women find the mobility and the courage to make their own choices? 


B.R. Ambedkar tried to bring the Hindu Code Bill that gave property rights to women along with the freedom to divorce. He thought that with these rights women would gain the confidence to choose their life partners and, in time, dismantle the caste system with inter-caste marriages. The Brahmin orthodoxy in the Constituent Assembly blocked the Hindu Code Bill. ‘What will happen to our sons, if we give property to daughters?’ they asked enraged. Ambedkar resigned and converted to Buddhism. Jawaharlal Nehru then got the Hindu Code Bill passed in a piecemeal manner as the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act and so on. Hindu women benefited from these as well as from access to education and employment. Many expanded their choices to not marry at all or have children. 


The orthodoxy still wants to curtail them. Thus the attacks on young women drinking alcohol or wearing Western clothes. Hence the wrath against Hindu women marrying Muslim men — how dare they exercise their choices? Especially since, it is alleged, an equal number of Muslim girls are not coming into the Hindu fold. To me this sounds like the ‘exchange of women’ that India and Pakistan organized in 1950. In the mayhem of the Partition, women were the worst casualty: they were abducted, raped or kept in the homes of their captors. Within a few months, some had married their abductors — as is shown in Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar — and had children. Some had already run away with their lovers. Most were certain that they were now too ‘tarnished’ for their families and would only bring ‘dishonour’. As Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin write, in the border camps women who did not want to be ‘recovered’ were dragged away from their children to tally the number of women exchanged.


So who are these victimized Muslim women that the Hindu right-wing wants to save? In 2017, the Muslim women’s networks obtained a historic victory in the triple talaq case in the Supreme Court. It looks like they decided to save themselves. They are now determined to save the Indian democracy. Remember Shaheen Bagh and several other places where we saw Muslim women in leadership position while Muslim men — young and old — played supporting roles. We saw hijab-clad young women turning their bodies into shields to protect their comrades from police batons. As Amir Aziz put it memorably in his poem, “Chulho se bandh di gayi chingariya mashaal ban jati hai, Gulam ke bediyon ki awaze azadi ki jhankar ban jati hai, isharon se inkilab karti hai, Jamia ki Ladkiyan (the sparks tied down to the hearth become torches/ the sounds of chains of the slaves become the echoes of freedom./ They do revolt with their eyes, these girls of Jamia).”

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

An original choice (The Telegraph)

Timothy Egan 

In the American West, a ration of reverence is usually given to the grizzled Anglo rancher who rises at a public hearing and announces that his people have been on the land for five generations. So what are we to make of Rep. Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, who says that her people have been in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico for 35 generations — dating to the 13th century?


“Native history is American history,” she told me. “Regardless of where you are in this country now, you’re on ancestral Indian land, and that land has a history.”


As Joe Biden’s choice for interior secretary, Haaland is poised to make a rare positive mark in the history of how a nation of immigrants treated the country’s original inhabitants. She would be the first Native American cabinet secretary — a distinction that has prompted celebration throughout Indian Country. “I haven’t been the one making policy,” she said. “But I’ve been the one on the receiving end of it.”


There will be plenty of sniping, second-guessing and disappointment among the tribes by people who expect much of Haaland having a seat at the big table. But for now, we should let this moment breathe.


I spoke to her on the anniversary of a day of infamy. On December 29, 1890, the US army slaughtered men, women and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Government policy was to strip Indians of their language, culture and religion, with children sent off to boarding schools where they were taught that the old ways were wrong. At the end of the 19th century, the popular view was that indigenous people would soon disappear. And yet here is Haaland, one of more than five million Native Americans, ready to knock down some of the last barriers of time and terrain in this country.


Her personal story alone makes Haaland an anomaly in the parlours of power. Soon after graduating from college, she became a single mother. She was sometimes dependent on food stamps, and she once ran a small business selling homemade salsa to make a living and support her child. As a freshman representative in 2019, she was still paying off her student loans.


When she ran for office, her slogan was, “Congress has never heard a voice like mine.” Now the person with that voice could soon be overseeing one-fifth of the land in the United States of America.


As interior secretary, her portfolio would include national parks, wildlife refuges, the US Geological Survey and the vast acreage of the Bureau of Land Management. Interior, for good reason, is known as the Department of Everything Else.


As such, she would also be overseeing millions of acres taken from Indians in treaties broken over the past several centuries, and would be the top government liaison with 574 federally recognized tribes — the nations within a nation.


This is quite the compass — from a deep slot in the earth near the Grand Canyon, wherein dwell the Havasupai, to the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, home of the Makah Nation, to urban neighbourhoods that house Indians struggling with healthcare access.


“I wish we could right some wrongs,” she said of the centuries-old saga of sorrow. But she seems content to try to right the many wrongs that Donald Trump’s administration has inflicted on the land.


Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, literally rode into office on a horse named Tonto and then promptly launched a campaign to make it easier to drill on public land. The current secretary, David Bernhardt, was an oil and gas lobbyist whose public service on behalf of his former clients was warmly received by his old friends.


Biden has pledged to end all new oil and gas drilling on these rangelands, forests and plains — an enormous change that will be fought fiercely by those who profit from land owned by all Americans. He has also promised to restore Bears Ears National Monument — a marvel of sandstone, mountains and Native sacred sites in the Southwest — that was gutted by Trump, who reduced the size of the protected area by 85 per cent.


Haaland is eager for the opportunity to do something lasting. “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet and all of our protected land,” she said in December.


But it’s the weight of Native history that makes the choice of Haaland so extraordinary, as she acknowledged. “This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us’.” She was referring to Alexander H.H. Stuart, the secretary of the interior in the early 1850s, in the Fillmore administration.


“Exterminate” was no exaggeration. The census of 1900 counted more than 237,000 Native Americans, a population collapse of nearly 90 per cent in the estimate of many ethnohistorians, from the time of first European contact.


Some of the atrocities are well known. But less well known is how the government made it a crime for Natives to practise their religion. It was a violation of the First Amendment to lock people up for enacting the rituals of faith — unless they worshipped Native gods through certain dances and ceremonies deemed criminal by the government.


A consistent plea from Indian Country today is a request that fellow Americans consider Native people as much more than living relics locked in a tragic past. Haaland aims to ensure that. “I’ll never forget where I came from,” she said. But, she added, “ I love this opportunity.” Even if she can’t reverse history, she is poised to make some.


Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Balancing act (The Telegraph)

Luv Puri  

In The Class, a 2008 French drama-film, a middle-aged, white, male teacher emphasizes the French identity of everyone present in a diverse class of young students with parental backgrounds in Francophone countries. This is met with a rebuttal by one of the students that he is not French and that he hails from his parents’ country of origin. The two continue to argue as neither relents. The present acrimonious debate in France on ‘safeguarding the republic’, this time centred on Muslim citizens, is not new although the arguments and consequences have both a local as well as a universal context. 

A greater, in-depth understanding is required for the outside world, particularly multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries reeling under similar challenges, as there are multiple factors underpinning the acrimonious and violent chapter in France’s political journey. At the same time, the argument that the French challenge is unique needs to be interrogated further. The current spate of developments is a result of the assassination of a French teacher in October last year. The French teacher had angered the assassin as he had shown his students cartoons of Prophet Muhammed in a civic education course on the freedom of expression. 

A series of other assassinations followed in France, carried out by young Muslim residents. France has seen a wave of violence since the 2015 terror attacks on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the shooting in a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, which killed seven, including three children. After the recent attacks, the president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to meet the challenge. Some initial statements from members of his government, which were later clarified, became controversial as many heads of state and governments of Muslim-majority countries accused him of peddling Islamophobia. 

In response to these developments, Macron has now come forward with a new draft law, which is designed to curb ‘Islamist separatism’. The bill, which will go to the National Assembly, the lower chamber of Parliament, this month includes an extension of the principle of ‘neutrality’ in public services — it prohibits civil servants from wearing ostentatious religious symbols, for instance — to private sector companies if they are contracted by the authorities. An overwhelming majority of France’s citizenry across the political spectrum supports the president who is up for re-election in 2022. The majority believes that ‘France’s distinctive form of laïcité, or secularism, is in danger.’ 

The laïcité law of 1905 emphasizes that the French Republic establishes that religion is a private matter and that the State has to remain neutral in matters of religion. The challenges to the French State in this regard are multifold and interwoven. Within the European context, France has one of the largest Muslim population with diverse ethnic backgrounds although the majority come from the Maghreb region and from erstwhile French colonies, namely Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. The French Muslim population, according to Pew Research Center, is estimated to be around 8.8 per cent. France, like many European countries, needs young immigrants as the median age is 41.5 years and the population of more than 65 years is 19.84 per cent. The fertility rate is 1.9 per cent, less than the replacement rate of 2.1 per cent. 

One of the vital distinctions of the French political project is that it is de facto a multi-cultural and multi-confessional society, but de jure its institutions are shaped by laïcité, not multiculturalism. The social scientist, Clément Godbarge, who is native to the wine-growing region of Bordeaux, told me that outsiders should be more sensitive to a nuanced understanding of the domestic context in which the French majority is articulating its concerns. He argued, “Approaches to secularism tend to be the result of complex historical processes, long negotiations that are unique to a country’s history and institutions.” 

Apart from the domestic factors, there is a need to pay attention to the external influences impacting the events in France. Most of the recent attacks were carried out by new immigrants, including a Sudanese asylum-seeker, a Chechen refugee, and a Pakistani Punjabi. They came from distant countries with little connection to France and are less aware of French history, values and traditions. The impact of schisms within the larger Muslim world may play a part in the religiosity of recent immigrants, which includes a larger number of people with Turkish ethnicity. That explains some of the proactive combative statements by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with respect to recent developments in France. By taking up real or perceived grievances of Muslim populations across the world, Erdogan has often challenged the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s traditional leadership of the Muslim ummah.  

On the other side of the spectrum, reeling under the threat of globalization and automation, many Western democracies are experiencing the rise of majoritarian politics among vast swathes of blue-collar workers. Threatened by the popularity of right-wing political parties such as National Rally, the centrist ruling party, La République En Marche, and the left-of-centre Socialist Party are competing in populism. This is coupled with the lack of inclusive political, social and economic structures. France is no exception to this trend. The idea of the laïcité may have a definite historical context but the challenges that the French society faces cannot ignore the contemporary structural and institutional biases that impact the minorities, including the Muslims born and raised in France. There are institutional impediments in France to social mobility that push them into ghettos. France has a rigid institutional entry code for many professions, including lowly-paid ones.

 Meanwhile, the argument that the mosque is the site for radicalization for some Muslims doesn’t stand the test of empirical evidence. The majority of lone wolf attacks in the West are perpetuated by those radicalized through online platforms. Consistent studies have proven that with a few exceptions radicalization of young men occurs courtesy online echo-chambers. On the other hand, mosques, particularly those in Western societies, are places for socialization and the development of social capital for minorities. In fact, mosques can deter attacks as they allow individuals to socialize and provide them with platforms to articulate their anxieties and concerns within a social framework. Any sign of radicalization can be easily identified by social peers, whereas lone wolf attacks are difficult to intercept. 

Finally, the issue of deculturalization of the Muslim community is common to many European countries, including France. The idea of treating Muslim people hailing from a diverse range of ethnic and geographical backgrounds as a homogenous group reinforces this deculturalization. Prescriptive policies and popular narratives reinforce the homogenous religious identity while underestimating the influence of distinct languages, cultures and customs. The younger men start eying broader, universal Islamic causes, internalizing real or perceived Islamic grievances. This is exacerbated by the problem of online radicalization, which is hard to interdict by State agencies. Filtration mechanisms of tech giants, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, are also proving to be far from adequate. 

To sum up, the French State and its civil society response will have to strike a fine balance between the need to be sensitive to and accommodative of the religious aspirations of its largest religious minority on the one hand and the majority’s fears that a long-held civilizational belief system of the country is in danger on the other. In doing so, the response requires to be more creative, nuanced and grounded in the political, social and economic realities of the 21st century that are shaping France as well as the rest of the global community.

Courtesy - Telegraph.

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Monday, January 4, 2021

Look deeper: women, SCs, STs in Indian police (The Telegraph)

The Editorial Board  

Progress rarely follows a linear path. The latest data — they included figures on gender, caste and identity-based representation — released by the Bureau of Police Research and Development are suggestive of the non-linear dimension of progress. It may seem heartening that India’s scheduled tribes now enjoy better representation in the force in comparison to their share in the nation’s population: they form 12 per cent of all police forces even though their share in India’s population is about 8.6 per cent. Similarly, the number of women in the police has nearly doubled to 2.15 lakh in 2019 from around 1.11 lakh in 2014. In a nation divided along lines of identity and gender, any improvement that helps balance the scales of community-based representation in institutions can be viewed as a mark of reassurance about the State’s intentions regarding inclusion and affirmative action. 


A closer look at the data set, unfortunately, throws up a far more dispiriting picture. Women still form a paltry 10 per cent of the actual strength of the police, and they mostly occupy the lower rungs of the police hierarchy. Only Maharashtra has a woman in the highest ranks in the special branches dealing with intelligence collection, while Tamil Nadu and Haryana have women inspector-generals in crime investigation departments. This gender lopsidedness has two troubling consequences. First, it compromises the ratio of women officers to women citizens — one for every 3,026 — often deterring the latter from reporting violent crimes to policemen who are known to be deeply insensitive to the myriad troubles experienced by Indian women. Fewer women also result in police policy lacking sensitization and direction when it comes to tackling gender issues. The other backward classes are also poorly represented, forming only 25 per cent of police personnel even though it constitutes 41 per cent of India’s population. According to the published data, SC and ST representation is markedly poor in the decision-making ranks. This has an ominous ring given that the majority of India’s under-trials belong to marginalized groups. Already, the nation’s police people ratio — it fell from 198 in 2018 to 195 in 2019 — is short of the United Nations mandated figure of over 220. A stretched force suffering from severe imbalances in community and gender representation is far from ideal when it comes to its ability to confront crime that is often the outcome of social, cultural and economic disparities. Proportionate identity representation in the police raises another important question. Should not merit — and not identity — be the only criterion for recruitment and assessment in the police?

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Health issues: Indian banking sector (The Telegraph)

The Editorial Board   

The Reserve Bank of India has indicated that the true health of the Indian banking sector is much worse than what current statistics indicate. The commercial banking system’s gross non-performing assets were 9.1 per cent of advances in March 2019. This fell to 8.2 per cent in March 2020. It fell further to 7.5 per cent in September 2020. This, as it appears, is good news. However, it conceals more than it reveals. First of all, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code helped resolve many large non-performing corporate accounts. This was a one-off improvement in the balance sheet of the banking sector. Second, banks usually prefer to write off bad debts after a while rather than keep provisioning for them. Again, this helps improve the optics of their balance sheets. Even after a debt is written off by a bank, the borrower continues to be liable to repay the written-off debt. However, banks are usually lethargic in pursuing borrowers. Data reveal that only 15-20 per cent of such debts are ever recovered. Third, the RBI, in the year of Covid-19, allowed a standstill in asset quality as part of its regulatory forbearance. In short, this meant that NPAs were not to be identified and declared. This will end on March 31, 2021. The true picture of slippages and new NPAs formed during the Covid-19 period will emerge only then. According to the banking regulator as well as banking sector observers, the real carnage of economic disruptions will become evident once the special measures are rolled back.


This will imply that banks will be unable and unwilling to lend and expose themselves to additional risks. Their lending strategies will become conservative. During the pandemic, credit off-take has also been slow; latest data for November 2020 show that it has actually shrunk by 0.7 per cent. Deposits in banks have grown during the period. While this may reflect the trust shown in the banking system by depositors, it becomes more difficult for the banks to earn profits. Low demand for advances and high supply of deposits are not good news for banks.  There are two ways out of this, and they must occur concurrently. The animal spirits of Indian investors have to become active, driven by optimism and opportunities, and the government has to make large budgetary provisions using tax-payers’ money to infuse capital in the weakened banking system. When these concurrent changes will take place is anybody’s guess at the moment.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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The bubble has burst: facial recognition (The Telegraph)

Neha Sahay   

Imagine walking into an international airport, completing self-check-in, self-baggage-check-in and then striding through security, with no one stopping you till just before you board — and only because Covid-19 protocol requires physical distancing. That is how easy it is for Chinese nationals to travel through Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport, the third busiest in the country.


This kind of seamless rail and bus travel has been a norm in many Chinese cities for a couple of years, and it is all owing to indigenously designed facial recognition systems. These systems have been installed in supermarkets too, providing relief to busy working women. “No need now to wait in a long line,’’ said the 33-year-old Xinyu, who can only shop after a long working day.


The demand for such systems went up rapidly after the coronavirus struck. In February itself, Guangzhou installed facial recognition thermometers in buses. As passengers swiped their bus cards, the thermometer scanned their faces, took their temperature and reported it to the driver. Urban residential communities also started installing the software too in order to reduce the physical use of objects and to limit visitors. For the elderly, this came as a boon. “No need to carry keys, cards or wallets,’’ smiled an old woman out for daily tai chi on a winter morning. As young people stayed locked inside, Tencent used facial recognition to detect underage players as they logged in to Tencent Games.


The ban imposed by the United States of America on cyber technology originating from China in May only pushed the companies to innovate. In June, Lenovo introduced a laptop with facial recognition technology. Companies upgraded their software to recognize even masked faces through the iris and forehead; this was used on campuses when they reopened and also on Beijing’s subways.


No escape 


But now, the bubble has burst. Facial recognition software is the new Enemy Number One. In November, a court in the provincial capital of Hangzhou ordered a park to compensate one of its regular visitors and delete his facial information. The member had sued the park after it insisted on his facial information for the activation of his annual admission card. His objections and requests that his card be cancelled and admission fee refunded were rejected. When he became a member last year, the park had taken his fingerprints and photograph; by making this new demand, the park was in breach of contract, he argued. The court agreed with him, but refused to invalidate the park’s new rule making biometric information the only form of admission.


The case provoked a storm. Earlier, pedestrians in the provincial capital, Jinan, had protested at their faces being flashed across screens on the road after they jumped the red signal at zebra crossings, prompting the authorities to blur their faces. This time, however, protests poured in from many cities. Residents said they had not been consulted when their community managements installed facial recognition software at their gates; some had refused to register for it. More serious were the complaints against real estate and courier agencies which either forced their clients to register their facial information, or secretly photographed them. In the provincial capital, Nanning, 10 customers had their properties sold without their knowledge by a dealer who had used their facial information to access their bank details.


On January 1, a new law protecting citizens’ privacy came into effect. But while private players will have to take permission before gathering such data, the government can use such information collected through equipment in public spaces only for “public security”. There is no escape, then, from Big Brother.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Aaj phir Jeeney ki Tamanna Hai (The Telegraph)

Sankarshan Thakur 

Plop! And so the journey began, and already its has gone plop! plop! plop! plop! so many multiple times that we have lost count of the plop-plops yet left ahead of us. So come, come along, there’s no time, Time is passing plop-plop-plop and we cannot let Time pass without keeping pace with it, else Time will leave us behind and you know what happens to those that Time leaves behind. They become the past, left behind, no longer within reach, forever irretrievable, gone. Those that Time leaves behind as it passes, plop-plop-plop, become the material of what we can only remember, or remember not. There is another word for them, but let us not use that word now, not at this time, not at beginnings, not when we have just set out. Come! Make haste! Mind Time. We have to be on our way, there’s no other perceivable way now, we already left. Plop! Plop! Plop!

But where to? And who might you be? To command in such fashion? You may have a point, and some pull, but if only your name was Desire.

Desire?

Are you surprised? Who could you be but Desire that I should even be persuaded ? Or even hear? Your entreaty: Come! Why else would I listen? Give me another reason, else let me be. Let Time pass, and let me be bypassed. For why else would I make the effort? Desire. And Desire alone, the first and last and the only one. The temptress Time employs. What else is Time but a catalogue of Desire? Sought. Secured. Or squandered. That is how Time passes. Plop! Plop! Plop! Plop! Stepping stone to stepping stone to stepping stone. For beyond Desire we may all well lose step with Time and become what Time leaves behind. What do you say? What are we without Desire? Think of yourself devoid of it. And prove to me you are still one of our species and remain alive. Why would you be here if not for Desire? Why would you follow Time? Why would you not wave it ahead, go on, proceed, plop! plop! plop! I am done, this is it, this is where it ends because this is the end of Desire, the use before date has ticked over.

Else, get up, walk. Time is travelling. Its Temptress is too, on silken blades that bleed all the way. It’s the way it tells itself, Time, its wake is a crowded wake. And bloodied, like disembodied, ageing Merlot. But you do not wish to become part of it yet. You want to come along, there’s more to want, there’s more to seek, there’s more to grasp and cling to, and more to quaff and quench. Oh Desire. Clip my nails so they may sprout again in shapes of waxing moon; and sprout again my nails so they may be clipped again in shapes of waning moon. As long as there’s a thing to do, or things, as long as there’s desire. If nothing else, a clipped nail, and the illusion of slices of the moon. One last drop down the throat. Who knows there may yet be room. One last rattle of air probing the suburbs of the heart. Who knows what may yet lie there lost and to be found. One last dribble of the iris. Who knows what it may settle on and go still. One last pulse on the vein. Who knows what it may yet tell. There’s Time? It isn’t the last? Who knows there may be yet more. Even after this, even when it has been such a long dying. And yet we are not dead. And yet we are being beckoned. Come! Make haste! Desire. Time’s temptress. One more time.

Time, it travels, and if there’s a thing to do, or things, you travel along too. Plop-plop! Clop-clop. Cloppety-clip. Throbbetty-throb.

It’s Time. And it is passing. Come then, say plop! Where have we arrived here from? And where might we be headed?

The wind, it sings

And breaks the wings of birds

The wolves, they howl

And they’re minding the herds.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Narendra Modi never wastes a crisis (The Telegraph)

Ramachandra Guha  

2020 has been a bad year for the health of Indians and for the health of Indian democracy too. The Modi-Shah regime, which is authoritarian by instinct and belief, has used the pandemic to further undermine the processes of constitutional democracy and strengthen its hold over State and society. In pursuit of its ambitions, the regime has launched a multi-pronged attack on the Indian Parliament, Indian federalism, the Indian press and Indian civil society organizations. Let us consider these in turn. 


In the years he was chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi displayed a consistent contempt for legislative procedure. A report compiled after he had been a decade in office showed that of all the chief ministers of Gujarat since the state’s formation, Modi convened the least assembly sittings. Months would pass in which the assembly would not meet; when it did, a day would be enough to dispose of matters at hand, with much time spent mourning members who had passed away. As is well known, apart from disregarding inputs from MLAs from the Opposition and even from his own party, Chief Minister Modi rarely consulted his own cabinet about major policy decisions. 


Modi has carried this contempt for consultation with him to New Delhi. For him, Parliament is a place to make the odd stirring speech in, not a chamber for deliberative decision-making. The partisan attitude adopted by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha is very much in line with their leader’s way of thinking. Their deputies act in the same way. Consider the manner in which the farm bills were ‘passed’ through the Rajya Sabha, with the deputy-chairman of the House, Harivansh, violating all the rules and norms of Parliament by refusing to allow actual voting, and making the bills into law on the basis of his own sense of the House. Of this departure from democratic practice, P.D.T. Achary, the former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, wrote, “Parliament’s systems are designed to enable the opposition to have its say and the government to have its way. If the former is not possible, parliament as a democratic institution cannot survive for long.”



Those who are Modi bhakts, or who believe that the ends justify the means, have disregarded these violations and welcomed the bills as ‘historic’. On the other hand, supporters of the farm bills with more scruples and a deeper understanding of history have honourably alerted us to the awful consequences of such contempt for Parliament. Thus, as the senior lawyer, Arvind Datar, writes, “The enormous economic loss and the dislocation of normal life around Delhi could have been wholly avoided if the Bills had not been bulldozed through Parliament. The agitation teaches us the importance of following parliamentary procedure not just in letter but in spirit as well.” Union ministers may put the blame on urban Naxals, Khalistanis, and Opposition parties, but, as Datar points out, it is the “extraordinary haste with which the farm bills were pushed through both the Houses [that] has created the present crisis, which can only exacerbate the economic woes caused by the pandemic.”


More recently, the government cancelled the winter session of Parliament citing the pandemic, even as the Union home minister was addressing large political rallies in Assam and West Bengal. 


As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi claimed to believe in ‘co-operative federalism’. As prime minister, he has sought to savagely curtail the rights and responsibilities of states. Again, the farm bill can serve as an example. As Harish Damodaran has pointed out, since the Constitution clearly places both ‘agriculture’ and ‘markets’ on the state list, on these matters “the Centre can encourage, incentivise, persuade and cajole states. However, it cannot legislate on its own.” Nonetheless, through a creative (mis)interpretation of an item in the concurrent list which covers trade and commerce in foodstuffs, the Centre had these bills passed, through the dubious procedure in Parliament described above, and without consulting the states at all.  


The pandemic has witnessed a more general attack on the federal principle. The powers of the Centre have been strengthened through colonial-era laws and the National Disaster Management Act. Meanwhile, state governments run by Opposition parties have been undermined by bribing, cajoling, or intimidating legislators to switch their allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party. A true marker of how much the BJP cares for power and how little for the health of Indians was that the prime minister waited for the swearing-in of the new government in Madhya Pradesh before imposing a draconian lockdown at four hours’ notice. 


In its attack on federalism, the BJP has particularly targeted two large states — West Bengal and Maharashtra. Here, governors more loyal to the ruling party at the Centre than to the Constitution and Central investigative agencies more loyal to their ministers than to the law have been used by the Modi-Shah regime to harass the non-BJP governments that currently rule these states. This intimidation has become so brazen that the BJP’s once loyal and long-term ally, the Shiv Sena, was compelled to state: “What if our Prime Minister is taking a special interest in destabilising State governments? The Prime Minister belongs to the country. The country stands as a federation. Even the states which do not have BJP governments, those states also talk about national interest. This feeling is being killed.”


In his years as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi was deeply distrustful of even the most non-political of civil society organizations. He has carried this distrust over to New Delhi. The year, 2020, had seen a tightening of the already extensive curbs on non-governmental organizations. The new amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, argues one analyst, is designed to facilitate “arbitrary, vindictive action by the authorities”. By curbing and confining NGOs, the bill shall “have far-reaching consequences on the fields of education, health, people’s livelihoods, gender justice and indeed democracy in India”. 


Narendra Modi has never much liked journalists who think for themselves, as his refusal to hold a press conference in six-and-a-half years as prime minister shows. The year, 2020, saw growing attacks on the independence of the press in India. In the first two months after the lockdown was imposed in late March, some 55 journalists faced FIRs, physical intimidation, and arrest. The highest number of attacks on journalists were in Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh, which are all ruled or controlled by the BJP. As a report by the Free Speech Collective noted, “The year 2020 has been a bad one for journalists in India… The killing and attacks on journalists have continued unabated. While self-censorship within the media remained an open secret, the government sought to increase regulation of the media, with media policies, funding and administrative mechanisms for online media.” India now occupies the 142nd place on the World Press Freedom Index, ranking well below Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, though the fact that we are three places above Pakistan may provide some consolation to deshbhakts.


 Apart from attacks on Parliament, federalism, civil society organizations and the press, 2020 had also seen a further stigmatization of India’s large and vulnerable Muslim minority. This stigmatization has been overseen by two of the most powerful politicians in India. The hand of the home minister, Amit Shah, is most visible in the BJP’s Bengal campaign and in the police’s partisan handling of the Delhi riots and their aftermath and the hand of UP’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, in the incarceration of a growing number of Muslim men on charges that are shady, flimsy, or non-existent. Notwithstanding the prime minister’s recent speech at the Aligarh Muslim University, it is clearly Adityanath’s majoritarianism that represents the deep, inner feelings of the party faithful, as manifest in the eagerness of other BJP chief ministers to enact the discriminatory laws and practices adopted in UP.


When the new laws regarding agriculture and labour were passed, there was a chorus of applause from free-market columnists crowing, “the crisis has not been wasted”. The chorus was credulous, because sustained economic growth requires both a level playing field and the rule of law. Neither does, or can, exist, in the Modi-Shah regime. Capitalists who contribute more to the secretive electoral bonds scheme shall get preferential treatment over those who don’t. Politicians who defect from other parties to the BJP miraculously have all corruption cases against them dropped. The police, the bureaucracy and even the courts allegedly act in the interests of their political masters rather than according to the law. 


To hold the State and the private sector accountable, one needs the transparent gaze of a free press, informed debate in Parliament, and independent civil society organizations. With what transpired in 2020, we have even less of these than previously. Finally, one cannot have social harmony if the State and the ruling party treat those who are not Hindus as inferior to those who are.


For the prime minister and his party, political power, ideological control, and personal glory take precedence over the economic and social well-being of India’s citizens. They have, therefore, used, or rather abused, the crisis to weaken the institutions of Indian democracy and the traditions of Indian pluralism so as to further the construction of an authoritarian and majoritarian State, which they seek far more diligently than anything else.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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