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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Showing posts with label The Times of India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Times of India. Show all posts

Friday, February 26, 2021

Show some sensitivity: Besides right to liberty, every citizen has a right to reputation. Both agencies and media need to remember this (TOI)

The Sushant Singh Rajput saga has finally receded from prime time TV and newspaper headlines. But, not before his hapless girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty was arrested and later released on bail by a Bombay high court order that was damning for the arresting agency, namely the Narcotics Control Bureau.

The youngster, in the interim, remained incarcerated for almost a month, which silenced the public frenzy against her whipped up by a crazed media. Mercifully, the dust seems to have settled on the case for the moment.

A few issues, however, continue to rankle. It is baffling why the ED stepped in. Where were the millions reportedly laundered that had necessitated their involvement? What extra did the CBI bring to the table that the local police had not already done? The NCB, an agency created to go into large-scale drug trafficking across national and international borders, was looking into miniscule amounts of cannabis exchanging hands in Bollywood parties.

And, lo and behold, it went to the extent of arresting Rhea et al seemingly on specious grounds. Many case laws lay down the circumstances under which an arrest can or should be made. Reasonable justification that such action is necessary and justified is imperative.

Arrests should be made only when the accused is likely to abscond and evade the processes of law; or when she is given to violent behaviour and likely to commit further offences if not brought under restraint. An arrest should not be made just because it is lawful for the law enforcement officer to do so. Arguably, Rhea’s arrest did not meet any one of these criteria.

Also, does the justice system of the country and its media have any regard for the reputation of its citizens? Or, are people’s reputations theirs for the asking – to be trampled on with impunity?

In Shakespeare’s play Othello the character Iago makes many statements referring to the importance of reputation. “Good name in a man or woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls”, says he to the protagonist. He adds: “… he that filches from me my good name robs me … and makes me poor indeed.” The Bard, through Iago’s character, underscores the value of good reputation, a treasure built over several years painstakingly but lost in no time by a mindless action. It is an invaluable asset, unmatched by material things, and to rob someone of it should be a grave offence.

Yet we find today a recurring trend of a TRP crazy media cutting loose in cases where celebrities are involved. Besides launching parallel investigations and sting operations, it even delivers verdicts that stick in the minds of gullible viewers. Who cares if reputations are gutted and good names singed in the bargain? And then, everyone moves on as if nothing happened.

Unarguably, every citizen, besides the right to liberty, possesses the ‘right to reputation’ as well. Her reputation lives a very real existence apart from her, representing the collective mental construct everyone shares about her, a construct based not only on her own actions but also on the perceptions of her actions.

A good reputation navigates her through life, soothes out the journey and a bad one causes doors to slam in her face. Hasn’t the time come, therefore, for stringent regulatory mechanisms to rein in the media that robs citizens of their hard-earned reputation? If laws can prevent the media from taking names of victims of sexual offences or of juvenile offenders, surely a regulatory regime can stop it from conducting public trials declaring someone guilty, even before she is tried under the law.

Not everyone has the resources to file defamation suits against media houses and their star anchors. We should have laws in-built into our system to prevent the sort of damage that was caused to the psyche and reputation of a promising youngster in the prime of her youth. Because today it is Rhea, tomorrow it could be one of us.

Since the government has failed to take necessary steps to create a regulatory regime for the media, the judiciary has, mercifully, stepped in. A division bench of the Bombay high court, hearing a bunch of PILs seeking regulation of media trials in the context of the SSR case, in their order dated October 29 observed, “If the person is actually innocent, excessive media reporting can damage her reputation.” The court has expressed its intent to lay down guidelines on the next date of hearing to control the media from conducting parallel investigation and trial.

That said, we should not forget that public emotions could be played up to the advantage of the accused as well. Recently, certain activists, apprehensive of their imminent arrest in a serious offence, sought to portray themselves as victims of the divisive politics of the day. The attempt was clearly to muster enough public support to prevent arrest and prosecution.

The police, however, stuck to their guns and pressed charges. The fact that no relief was forthcoming even from higher courts has put paid to their efforts to use popular public narrative to escape the dragnet of justice.

In balance, a robust mechanism is necessary to prevent the media from trifling with people’s reputations. Equally, our agencies should show more sensitivity towards citizens’ fair names. And, finally, media should be wary of those attempting to evade legal action against themselves by using it to whip up public sympathy. These ideas might look like pipe dreams, but they are eminently doable.

Courtesy - TOI.


Friday, January 15, 2021

Privacy checks in: Special Marriage Act’s intrusive 30 day public notice provision could be on its last legs (TOI)

The Allahabad high court judgment holding the 30 day public notice under the Special Marriage Act (SMA) optional, promises to put an end to a regressive provision in a law often touted as a Uniform Civil Code template. Justice Vivek Chaudhary has held that a couple not willing to allow the publication of a 30 day notice requires the marriage officer to solemnise the marriage forthwith. The public notice provision has faced increasing flak over communal and caste vigilantes using it to foil marriages.

The court was hearing a habeas corpus petition by a Hindu man seeking out his wife, a Muslim who converted to Hinduism on marriage eve, detained by her father. It was moved to address this matter when the reunited couple bemoaned their preference to marry under SMA instead of religious personal law was frustrated by its onerous 30 day public notice, soliciting objections that violated their privacy and incentivised societal and family pressures. The court was also informed that many such interfaith couples were now trapped between this unhelpful public notice and the new, draconian UP law stricturing religious conversion for marriage.

Justice Chaudhary has ruled that the public notice violated the fundamental right to privacy recognised by the Supreme Court. He also flagged sweeping societal changes since SMA’s enactment in 1954 and that the very purpose of laws is to serve society as per its needs, which SC judgments have consistently satisfied through greater fulfilment of personal freedoms. Finally, the judge recognised the farcical situation where personal law marriages do not require such public notices. In a modern, secular society that recognises the right of consenting adults to marry, the SMA should entrust the marriage officer with no greater role than verifying identity, age and valid consent. The right to privacy promises more such resets in the power asymmetry between state and citizens in the coming days.

Through a series of interventions, Allahabad HC has struck some powerful blows for couples torn apart by society, state officers and mistaken laws. With this resounding HC verdict, SC must step in and examine the constitutionality of this SMA provision and the near-identical UP, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh laws targeting interfaith marriages and religious conversions. Unlike the farm laws with political and policy imperatives which have opposing and supporting farmers making adjudication dicey, threats to individual liberties and privacy lie squarely in SC’s domain and must occupy its utmost energies.

Courtesy - TOI


Societal delusions: Trump bulldozed reality and aroused a mirror pathology at the national level (TOI)

Any accounting of how polarised his country will remain after US President Donald Trump exits office begins with his outsized contribution to various societal delusions. Indeed, throughout his term psychiatrists have questioned his mental health. Diagnoses have included emotional fragility, malignant narcissism, sociopathic characteristics, and a personal reality that’s a “patchwork of knowing falsehoods and sincerely believed fantasies.” Further, World Mental Health Coalition president Bandy X Lee points out, “when such wounded individuals are given positions of power they arouse similar pathology in the population,” inducing delusions at the national level. The treatment, she says, is removal of exposure.

Exacting socio-economic conditions have facilitated this shared psychosis. To take just a couple of big examples, beginning February last year Trump has unbendingly stuck to the line that Covid will simply go away and beginning November he has continuously claimed election victory. Such wild falsehoods put him in a league of his own, especially if he believes them too. As Mitt Romney has said, what happened in the US Capitol on January 6 was horrifyingly an insurrection incited by the president of the United States himself.

His exit will in itself bring a degree of healing. But many of the 73 million who voted for him will remain vulnerable to a shadow presidency or a 2024 candidacy. As Lee argues, the goal is to change the circumstances that led to their faulty beliefs. The social media cancellations which have already diluted his influence on the news cycle, indicate that muting his delusional narratives to grab back reality is certainly possible. But either through a Senate impeachment conviction during his presidency or criminal prosecution afterwards, he must be held to account. To protect Truth, begin there.

Courtesy - TOI


India in US strategy: Declassification of Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy highlights New Delhi’s importance (TOI)

The declassification of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific policy- that reveals a desire on Washington’s part to accelerate India’s rise to counter China- doesn’t really come as a surprise. The India-US strategic partnership has been growing in recent years in the face of an aggressive China. It is in fact no secret that India seeks active US support in the defence sector — from intelligence sharing to transfer of military technology and critical weapons platforms — to meet its national security needs.

And these needs have only increased in the wake of the border clashes with China last year. As matter of fact, given the geopolitical scenario, India must continue to boost ties with Western partners and like-minded democracies to counter China’s hegemonic designs in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing clearly believes that it is time to revive the Middle Kingdom whereby China will be at the centre of the global order and other countries will need to fall in line. This is clearly unacceptable and India and the US must coordinate to preserve a free and open order.

That said, while a strengthening of the India-US partnership based on shared values is welcome, New Delhi must not- and will not- become purely an instrument of Washington’s interests. Both sides anyway recognise mutual respect as the bedrock of the bilateral relationship and it should be kept that way. There will be disagreements on minor points like India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system. And Washington should expect New Delhi to follow its strategic interests on these. As long as the big picture of preserving a free and open order is clear, India-US ties are natural and beneficial for the world.

Courtesy - TOI


Thursday, January 14, 2021

Lockdown fallacy: Delhi should attack bird flu not the chicken, egg businesses (TOI)

Even before bird flu was confirmed in Delhi the state government banned the import of live birds into the capital and shut down the Ghazipur wholesale poultry market for ten days. It went on to also restrict the supply of processed chicken from outside Delhi. The three municipal corporations have gone further: banning the sale of eggs besides live or raw chicken meat and processed or packed poultry products.

One big lesson of the pandemic was that some cures can be worse than the disease and that harsh lockdowns can cruelly destroy lives and livelihoods even as they fail to control virus spread. Far from having learnt this lesson there is a very real possibility that in India the opposite is true, and that governments will now resort to harsh bans of economic activity repeatedly, senselessly and destructively.

Bird flu spreads from migratory or wild birds to commercial poultry, basically infected feces and saliva carrying the disease from live birds to live birds, in the air as much as on land. It rarely jumps to humans but when it does, this is through infected live birds or contaminated surfaces. But so rare is such a jump that experts point out in the one and half decade history of bird flu in India, not a single instance has been reported when the infection was passed on to humans.

Rigorous inspections for bird flu and culling of all suspect birds would have taken a toll on the poultry industry anyway, which was unavoidable. But taking chicken and eggs off the menu has also struck a heavy blow to restaurants, small eateries, including dhabas, and roadside bakeries where eggs are almost a staple. Bakeries too may have to restrict their operations.

Note that many of these enterprises have anyway struggled to survive since the lockdown. Such a government offensive also spreads misinformation and panic among the public, even though well cooked eggs and chicken simply cannot carry the virus.

The need of the hour continues to be extensive surveillance, so that all birds suspected of infection can be culled. The wholesale markets also need heavy monitoring to ensure hygiene and safety. But pretending either that the virus can somehow be stopped by borders that are very much creatures of land rather than air or that processed or cooked eggs and chicken are an infection threat to humans, is bad science and worse economic policy.

Courtesy - TOI


In data we trust: The case for allowing choice for the Covaxin vaccine, for now (TOI)

As millions of doses of Covishield and Covaxin get shipped to cities across India a proud moment full of hope and good tidings is somewhat marred by doubts about the regulatory process. The questioning is concentrated around Covaxin where Phase 3 trials are incomplete, and which got approval “in clinical trial mode”. Government spokespersons often rue “less than adequately informed discussion”. But the redress for this is very much with them: Provide the public information more generously and transparently.

Dismissing the questions as politically motivated cannot suffice. When Chhattisgarh health minister TS Singh Deo says that his state will not allow Covaxin because it has not completed the mandatory three trials, this is also the reason why several countries haven’t cleared Chinese and Russian vaccines, where data is patchy and opacity rules. Covaxin developer and manufacturer Bharat Biotech, which enjoys an excellent international reputation, has now been forced into an unattractive defensiveness. In Bengal when Covaxin Phase 3 trials started, urban development minister Firhad Hakim became the first volunteer to get a shot, so, again, the chief minister asking about efficacy data ahead of mass vaccination need not be seen in just a political light.

In healthy democracies citizens robustly demand explanations from government, and overall it is this that safeguards their interests. The unprecedented speed of vaccine advances during the Covid pandemic has left regulators from the UK to Australia and the US scrambling to answer probing questions. In this, India is not unique. In moving forward, it needs to embrace global best practices. For example, in Germany the Chancellor has assured that nobody will be forced to be vaccinated. Because choice, alongside good information, builds trust. Covaxin is going to be administered “in clinical trial mode”, and this is by definition voluntary.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

US, India: Stop the uncivil wars: When a nation forgets it’s one people and institutions weaken, we’re at the abyss (TOI)

Gurcharan Das

Indians didn’t know what to think. They woke up last Thursday in disbelief to shocking scenes of President Donald Trump’s supporters overrunning the US Capitol. The deliberate assault on democracy by a sitting president, attempting to overturn a fair election, was an ominous moment in American history.

The reaction in India was divided. Some worried that a weakened America would be unable to help India to contain aggressive China breathing down our borders. A few were smug, seeing an America at odds with itself, getting a taste of its own medicine after lecturing the world for decades about democracy. The WhatsApp brigade was busy forwarding gags: “Owing to Covid travel restrictions, this year’s US backed coup will take place at home.” Most thoughtful Indians were fearful, however: If the oldest and longest existing democracy had seen the edge of an abyss, what if it happened in India with much weaker institutions?

Chad Crowe

Instead of fear, I had the opposite reaction. Trump’s supporters had failed to subvert the constitutional order. It’s because democracies entrust power in institutions, not in rulers. US Congress went on to confirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Even Trump in the end wasn’t above the law. It was a victory for America’s democracy, which had proven its resilience. Liberal democracies are only as robust as their institutions are independent and their officers are honest. The lesson for India is to strengthen our weak institutions.

More worrisome is the tragic divide in America and India which has brought about an ‘Age of Hatred’. The storming of the Capitol wasn’t a one-off occurrence instigated by an unhinged leader. It’s a symptom of a deeper disease that President Biden will have to live with.

In India we must worry about our own uncivil polarisation. Our BJP and Congress parties resemble America’s Republicans and Democrats, behaving like prehistoric tribes that live in wholly different realities determined to annihilate each other. They have forgotten that they are one people, one nation, and part of a common humanity with a conscience.

This tribalism endangers the existence of the world’s two largest democracies. Democracy accepts differences and dislikes, allows room for protest and disagreement, but always under the basic rules of cooperation.

The lesson for India’s divisive politics is that the insurrection in America wasn’t limited to a lunatic fringe. A survey by YouGov reported that 45% Republicans approved of the storming of the Capitol. According to a Reuters/ Ipsos poll, 68% of Republicans believe that the recent US election was ‘rigged’, and 52% believe that Trump had ‘rightfully won’. Since 73 million people voted for Trump, this means that nearly 50 million people in the US doubt the election’s legitimacy. It also explains why 78% of Democrats called the mob on Capitol Hill ‘domestic terrorists’ but 50% of Republicans said they were ‘protesters’ and a third called them ‘patriots’. America is in the middle of an uncivil war.

I too became a small victim of our own uncivil polarisation in the past two weeks. On January 4, I was called vile names by trolls while I was defending the recent sensible reforms in agriculture. Unfortunately, the TV channel headlined only the first part of my statement: “It’s difficult to do reforms in a democracy.” The trolls accused me of supporting dictatorship. What I said, in fact, was: “It’s difficult to do reforms in a democracy; hence, smart reformers spend 20% of their time doing reforms, 80% selling them, carrying people along. Mr Modi failed to do this and he’s got farmer protests.”

The second incident happened at IIT Jammu on January 9, where I was giving the convocation address. I was asked to remove a lovely black cap given to me by the organisers to wear on this festive occasion. Hindu nationalists thought it resembled a Kashmiri Muslim cap and found it offensive. Both incidents left a bad taste in my mouth and are the outcome of the unhappy divide between those who love and those who hate Modi.

There’s no room for the aam admi in the middle, the average Indian who is neither a Modi bhakt nor a Congressia – someone who judges issues on their own merit, not through the lens of those who’d divide us.

America must now impeach Trump to confirm that it holds its president accountable for going rogue. India should take this as a cautionary tale and strengthen its institutions, especially checks on arbitrary power. Some of our institutions have delivered such as our Election Commission, which conducts impeccably much larger elections than the US with few complaints from the losers.

But our judiciary, our police, our bureaucracy and Parliament are in crying need of reform. Why do one in four lawmakers in India have a criminal record? Why should it take 15 years to get justice in the courts? Why is the Indian police the handmaiden of the chief minister, and why does an innocent man fear entering a police station? During the siege of the US Capitol, some bewildered law makers had asked, ‘Where are the police?’

Covid has given both America and India a chance to heal the wounds of divisive politics, an opportunity to show that its citizens are one people. This dastardly deed in America proves that the old hatreds are alive and well. India, at least, has slowed the mad rush towards CAA/ NRC, but that doesn’t mean the old revulsions won’t return. The animosities are extracting too heavy a price in both nations, consuming the energy that should go to restoring the economies after the pandemic. Both nations must stop their uncivil wars!

Coursty - TOI.


Sumaithangi, the load bearing stone (TOI)

By Narayani Ganesh

At first glance, to a stranger, the two vertical granite stone columns holding up one horizontal stone slab would look like a crude version of the gateway to a Japanese Shinto shrine. While the Shinto Gateway called Torii symbolises the transition from the mundane to the sublime and sacred, the simple sumaithangi – Tamil for ‘load bearer’ – is designed to let the pilgrim and farmer unburden themselves of their baggage in the course of their long journey by foot, and rest their weary muscles.

Interestingly, there seems to be a possible etymological link between the Japanese Torii that means bird perch and the Indian torana, which translates as gateway, usually ornate and meant to be welcoming of visitors. Perhaps it denotes the point of taking flight from the known to the unknown, as birds are wont to do, as they perch a while before taking off. Most sacred gateways in countries of Southeast Asia could be traced to the Indian torana concept, perhaps transmitted along with Buddhist philosophy that went from India to the Far East.

Driving from Chennai to the Palani hills via Tiruchirapalli and dozens of small villages and hamlets during summer holidays, the sumaithangi was a common sight, usually placed in the shade of a tamarind tree, providing succour to yatris from the sweltering heat. We would stop at one of these spots to take a lunch break, when the tall, large, stainless steel tiffin carrier with its many containers would be taken out and food served on banana leaves – lemon rice, idli, tamarind rice, curd rice, pickles and pappadoms. The vessels were all lined up on the sumaithangi after wiping it down with a wet cloth. Once done, the empty containers would go back into the boot of the car and the sumaithangi was wiped clean, and we would be on our way.

Only later did I learn of the significance and utility of the sumaithangi, that it was meant for travellers to unburden themselves as they took a break. What a wonderful concept, I thought to myself, trying to correlate the empty tiffin carrier with emptying the mind of burdens. Why cannot we have a virtual sumaithangi to unburden ourselves of all our worries, fears and anxieties? We may or may not pick them up again, but even if we did, the load would be better organised with some reflection and perspective. Some burdens may disappear forever, and the journey forward is rendered less difficult. Your sumaithangi could be your guru, a dear friend or relative, who listens to you with empathy and understanding. In Christianity, the confession box and priest serve as sumaithangi to believers. Or you could just pour your heart out to a stone.

It is not uncommon to liken the stone to a load bearer, something that is resilient and patient, much like the Patience Stone known as Syngue Sabour in Afghan lore. The Patience Stone is believed to ‘absorb the plight of those who confide in it’. Tamil homegrown wisdom advises troubled souls to find a secluded place and pour out all fears and worries into an empty pot, then smash it to pieces, a kind of catharsis that is pacific and healing rather than yelling at those you think are responsible for your plight. It is eco-friendly, too! (

Coursty - TOI.


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Swagato Ganguly

After drinking at various disciplinary streams, which included an engineering degree from IIT Kanpur and a doctorate in literature from the University of Pennsylvania, Swagato ... MORE

Delhi’s eyes are anxiously peeled west at the moment as it wonders whether Taliban, hitherto seen as a terror group, is poised to topple the Afghan government India has so heavily supported and invested in. However, the shape of things to come a little further west are of greater moment as far as its strategic interests are concerned.

With President Donald Trump on his way out, a great deal hinges on whether the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), can be revived. The deal was signed when Joe Biden was vice-president, and he has signalled his intent to return to it. However, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh soon after it became clear that Biden had beaten Trump in the US presidential election, appears intended to forestall such a revival that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dead set against.

Fakhrizadeh’s assassination came after the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, considered the second most powerful man in Iran who oversaw its Syrian and other external operations, in a drone strike in Baghdad ordered by the Trump administration. Thus the Fakhrizadeh assassination, coming at the delicate moment of the troubled transition from Trump to Biden administrations, could elicit an Iranian reaction which would draw in the US, effectively scotching a revival of JCPOA.

Tehran, however, seems to be avoiding such a kneejerk reaction as of now – it has said it will rejoin the nuclear deal within an hour of the US doing so, provided no further changes to it are countenanced. Notwithstanding this, it did mark the first anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination by seizing a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf, the MT Hankuk Chemi. It has also breached the nuclear deal by enriching uranium to 20%, while signalling it will go back on this if all signatories, chiefly the US, come back into compliance.

Clearly, its tactics are designed to pressure an incoming Biden administration to quickly rejoin the treaty on terms previously agreed to. The region, however, is on a hair trigger alert. Tel Aviv would be itching to set something off to scuttle JCPOA. Riyadh, which sees Tehran as a sworn enemy and whose oilfields have been bombed and set ablaze by Tehran’s proxies, wouldn’t mind either. Tehran, likewise, is itching for revenge for Soleimani’s assassination. And a frustrated President Trump, who has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign that has impoverished Iran and would love a distraction when he stands to be impeached in the last days of his presidency, may not mind starting a war and leaving President-elect Biden to pick up the pieces.

Even if we go through the next week unscathed and Biden takes over as president, things won’t be easy as Iran hawks in Washington will press him to extract more concessions from Tehran, which the latter has indicated it isn’t willing to concede.

There are thus plenty of things that can go wrong even in case of a smooth Biden transition. If the nuclear deal falls through, Iran will be lost to the West and Beijing will rush to fill the vacuum, securing cheap energy supplies, expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as acquiring a useful ally. China and Iran have already reached a $400 billion strategic partnership, which includes constructing a railway line from the port of Chabahar to Zahedan on the Afghan border.

What will be the fallout for Delhi, the party originally supposed to construct a railway line from Chabahar to the Afghan border? If a China-Iran-Pakistan alliance firms up, Delhi is likely to lose its equities in both Iran and Afghanistan, and it can forget about access to central Asia.

Does Delhi, therefore, become an outright loser if JCPOA falls through? To some extent, yes. But there will still be some chess pieces left for it to play. One outcome of a China-Iran-Pakistan alliance will be that US forces, currently barely hanging on in Afghanistan, will almost surely be squeezed out, which will also disable Islamabad from using their security as a bargaining chip with Washington.

Second, if geopolitical rivalry steps up in the Middle East, then a reaction to a powerful Iran, potentially armed with nuclear weapons and backed by China, is inevitable from the Gulf Arab states. Realignments among the latter are already visible with the UAE and Bahrain normalising ties with Israel, while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his quest to modernise the Saudi economy and diversify it away from oil, tries to be Saudi Arabia’s Deng Xiaoping.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been cool to Islamabad’s efforts to kick up dust over India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir, leading to a significant rift between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Delhi, which already has significant equities with the Gulf Arab states – nine million Indians live there, and most of its foreign exchange remittances emanate from the region – therefore has an opportunity to step them up and fill the gap. Indeed it already shows signs of doing so, as in General MM Naravane’s visit to Saudi Arabia and UAE to discuss deeper defence and security ties last month, the first ever such trip by an Indian army chief. Thus, if Beijing’s shadow falls between India and Iran, Delhi still has the option of looking further west, beyond Iran to the rapidly transforming Gulf Arab states.

Nonetheless it would be best, from Delhi’s point of view, if JCPOA could be revived and Iran’s isolation ended. That would not only stabilise the Middle East and protect Indian investments in Chabahar, it would also obviate the necessity for Delhi to make stark choices.

Coursty - TOI.


Monday, January 11, 2021

Why EPS, OPS should be more than friends, a really small gang (TOI)

Arun Ram

In politics, said 19th century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships. In the AIADMK, it is also the shared fear of loss.

The ruling party’s general council on Saturday endorsed Edappadi K Palaniswami as its chief minister candidate and authorised him and deputy chief minister O Panneerselvam to decide on poll strategies, alliances and seat sharing “to ensure a resounding victory”. No surprises, as there was no other way the party could go.

The party had, on October 7, chosen EPS for the top post and agreed to OPS’s demand for an 11-member steering committee. As per the party bylaws, OPS should be a joint signatory with EPS on crucial decisions including seat-sharing and candidate selection, or they wouldn’t get the election commission’s approval. For now, they have to be more than friends; they should be like a really small gang.

This functional unity will remain the cornerstone of the party’s electoral prospects. If it remains intact, the AIADMK has a fighting chance; if it cracks, forget the dream of “a resounding victory”, the very continuance of the AIADMK in its present form may be at stake. In this electoral battle, the DMK, which has been out of power for close to 10 years, has its single focus on defeating the AIADMK. The ruling party, meanwhile, has, besides taking on its prime rival, two sides to watch — its internal dissidence and possible challenges V K Sasikala can pose once out of prison.

The first big challenge will begin – if it hasn’t already – when the AIADMK brass sit together to choose the candidates. Both EPS and OPS would want to have more of their respective supporters to contest, keeping in mind the post-poll scenario. Despite OPS being the coordinator, joint coordinator EPS, who enjoys wider support in the party forums, will have a bigger say. It is here the two will have to give and take (OPS may have to give more and take less), considering each one’s strengths and the certain disaster a falling out can invite.

The best way would be to draw up a longlist and soon a shortlist of nominees for each constituency and let an external agency (the party has a consultant) do a fairly objective analysis to select the one with the highest chances of winning. For this, again, the two leaders have to agree. EPS may find this to his advantage, as the list of nominees is likely to be populated by people who have been either his supporters or neo-converts owing to his renewed predominance in the party and the government in the past couple of years. OPS will have to be realistic and get the best he can from a technically fair selection process.

Less tangible is the situation arising out of Sasikala’s release from prison, which is expected on January 27. So far, employing fear and favour, the AIADMK has been able to keep its flock together; it even got some ministers to say Sasikala will have nothing to do with the party. But once she walks out of the gates of Parappana Agrahara as a person with resources, but one who cannot contest an election or hold a public office for six more years, Sasikala may be politically tempting for some. If nothing else, a mildly resurgent AMMK can prove more than an irritant for the AIADMK.

The AIADMK has to meet these two challenges internally to be ready for the ultimate battle with the DMK-led front. And, for that, cohesion holds the key. They may not share much love, but EPS and OPS should remember they share enough fears and hatreds to remain friends in mutual need.

Courtesy - TOI


To attain success, have faith in yourself (TOI)

By Anup Taneja

Swami Vivekananda said that to attain Self-realisation and success in life, three things are of paramount importance: to have unflinching faith in oneself; to adopt a positive approach to life; and to focus on one idea exclusively at a time.

Have unshakeable faith in yourself. “If you have faith in all the 330 million mythological gods, and still have no faith in yourselves, there is no salvation for you,” said Swami Vivekananda. Have unshakeable faith in yourself, stand upon that faith, and be determined to achieve the targets you set.

Seekers must never lose sight of the fact that they are sparks of the Infinite, Divine fire, and have the power within them to accomplish anything. If you believe that the Infinite Divinity is working in and through you, and that the ‘antaryami’, the Omnipresent, is present in every atom that penetrates your body, mind and soul, there can be no reason why you should not attain success in life.

Merely believing in certain theories and doctrines and understanding these at the intellectual level, opined Swamiji, would lead nowhere; there can be no liberation for man until he sees God; realises his own soul.

Adopt a positive approach to life. It is an irony that even though all powers in the universe are present right within us, we are not able to access these, and continue to live in a state of misery. The main reason for this is the deep-rooted habit of negative thinking that shatters our confidence and impairs our judgment. Negative thoughts like ‘I won’t be able to clear the examination; I am sure I am suffering from a serious disease’, constantly occupy the minds of people with a pessimistic approach to life. To such people, success proves elusive.

Seekers are, therefore, advised to invoke their will power through regular introspection and align themselves with the cosmic current of positive energy that constantly flows within them. This, in turn, will help in cauterising the cells of negative thinking and replacing them with self-confidence, and belief in one’s abilities. “Talk to your mind once a day, otherwise you may miss meeting an intelligent person in this world,” said Swamiji.

Take up one idea at a time. If we carefully observe our thought patterns, we may find that the mind can wander aimlessly, and is engaged in a number of things simultaneously. These scattered thoughts render the mind weak, making it virtually impossible for the seeker to focus on a particular subject. The result is that we are not able to attain success in any task that we undertake.

Swamiji recommends the technique of chanting the mantra ‘Aum’ during meditation and listening to its sound with rapt attention. This technique, if practised on a regular basis, goes a long way in increasing one’s power of concentration. In the words of Swami Vivekananda: “Take up one idea, make that one idea your life. Think of it, dream of it; let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”

Swami Vivekananda was born on January 12 in Calcutta. He was among the foremost disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Preparing for death, the ultimate reality (TOI)

By Narayani Ganesh

A relative who was planning to start a new business venture – which meant securing a hefty loan and investing time and energy – was talking to me animatedly about her future plans. I was puzzled. She was in her mid 60s, had been a busy and accomplished professional all her working life, and often complained of lack of time to do things that held her interest. She loved her profession, too, and had won many accolades and awards that left her completely beholden to her work.

I reminded her that she had talked of putting her feet up, get holistic treatments, travel at her own pace, watch films and shows she’d missed, catch up on her reading, spend quality time with family and friends, resume drawing and painting, and whatnot. How would she ever do those things if she was going to plunge headlong into a time-consuming new venture? To which she replied that she would, once she had seen the proposed venture to its fruition.

I gently reminded her that she was not exactly young; that she needed to now work backwards, fixing an approximate age of death – perhaps she would live another fifteen or twenty years? Why not plan for those precious years, now that she was financially and professionally secure and well-established?

I was unprepared for the violent reaction and onslaught that followed my innocuous, well-meaning suggestion. “You want me to die? Are you saying I am going to die soon? Until this moment death had never entered my mind. You are so insensitive, nay cruel!” And she burst out crying. I was flabbergasted. I explained to her that I said all of this only because I loved her dearly and wanted her to fulfil all her dreams and relax, enjoy and find peace and contentment. I certainly did not wish for her to die! She stopped talking to me for the next six months or so. Her parting refrain was, “Everyone I know encouraged me and praised my new venture idea – you are the only one who has discouraged me and criticised me!” Maybe I am the only one who truly cares for you, I mumbled to myself.

Most of us are taken by surprise when Yama, the Lord of Death, beckons. We know that death is a certainty, yet we are totally unprepared for that life-ending event that spares no one. Why do we refuse to plan ahead for that ultimate reality, death? Why don’t we prepare ourselves for it? This is the theme of the 500-page new book by Arun Shourie, published by Penguin Viking in 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, titled ‘Preparing For Death’. I have only just skimmed through its pages, and it will be my first read this New Year, as it holds out the promise of courage and insight, both vital to embarking on one’s final journey to an unfamiliar destination. It is also peppered with interesting anecdotes. The opening lines got me hooked and I am dying to read more: “‘Yaar, Arun, have you noticed one thing?’ my friend of sixty years or more asked as we sat through yet another memorial meeting. ‘We now know more persons on that side of the LOC than on this.’”

Courtesy - TOI.


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Yoga for union with the cosmic self (TOI)

By MN Kundu

Paramahansa Yogananda often said that after his exit from the physical body, his lessons would take his place to aid and advise the spiritual aspirants. On the occasion of his birth anniversary, let us ponder on his legacy of lessons on Self-realisation, spreading practical and theoretical teachings on yoga for union with the cosmic Self.

Yogananda felt the pulse of the people, their spiritual whereabouts, scientific inquisitiveness, and worldly compulsions and framed a comprehensive curriculum on yoga, blending Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga and Laya Yoga.

Raja Yoga, the rocket route to Self-realisation, meant for ascetics has been made accessible to householder aspirants as well. The foundation of the path has been made intellectually firm with spiritual wisdom and dynamic, emotional fuel of divine romance with the cosmic Beloved. And in that process, life becomes an offering to God with selfless service to the Omnipresent all the time during mundane activities. Meaningful chanting with continuous internalisation constitutes the recurring refrain in the spiritual journey to Self-realisation.

Yogananda is widely known as an emissary of Kriya Yoga, which according to Maharshi Patanjali constitutes tapasya, swadhyaya and Ishwarpranidhan. Tapasya means persistent practise of equanimity under all circumstances. Swadhyaya involves analytical and assimilative engagement with lessons on Self-realisation. While Ishwarpranidhan means spontaneous offering of life to cosmic will.

Thus, it is a chemical composition of Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga for total transformation of the devotee. Usually, Kriya Yoga is understood to be a dynamic process of meditation, in which prana is moved from gross, material manifestation of the divine to subtle elements and unified field of consciousness towards Spirit, through microcosmic spinal stairways of wakefulness in man, made in the image of God, as an epitome of the cosmic play of Nature and Spirit in creation.

Yet, the first hurdle comes from the lethargic body and wavering mind.  Yogananda developed 39 Energisation Exercises to recharge every body part with prana and cosmic source of energy at will. For the wavering mind, silent chanting technique of ‘Hong-Sau’ is a way to build concentration and meditative calmness. Maharshi Patanjali described that denotation of God is ‘Aum’, a cosmic vibration which can be felt through Yogananda’s Aum technique meant for realisation of cosmic vibration behind creation and the Spirit beyond the delusive dualities and triple guna dynamics.

From time to time, aspirants find their practice of yoga to be a mechanical routine due to the gravitational pull of maya. To keep it ever new and interesting, Yogananda taught all sorts of prayers and visualisations to attract direct benefit of divine grace. His cosmic chants composed as musical downpour of devotional appeals melt us from within. Talking to God as the nearest of the near and dearest of the dear and taking every problem to him opens our heart and makes us receptive to divine will. Moreover, acceptance of worldly life as divine play and ourselves as players enables discriminatory non-attachment to the impermanent flux of phenomena.

Ancient art and science of yoga is an excellent way to explore the realm of cosmic consciousness and Spirit beyond. And one can venture into the same through the study of Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ and lessons on Self-realisation with suitable practical inputs for practice.

Today is Paramahansa Yogananda’s birth anniversary.

Courtesy - TOI.


US-India: Ambition & achievement: We coordinate closely on defence. We need the same ambition in the economic sphere (TOI)

There is no bilateral relationship in the world that is as broad, complex, and rich in substance as that of the United States and India. We cooperate on defence, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, trade, investment, energy, the environment, health, education, science and technology, agriculture, space, and so much more. While our strategic partnership has been on an upward trajectory over the last two decades, the past four years stand out as a time of ambition and achievement.

Our diplomatic coordination flows from the US commitment to support India’s rise and our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. While the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been many years in the making, it is in the past four years that our countries have shown the ambition to turn it into a reality. For the United States, the Indo-Pacific means that, at a time of great change and challenge, we see India as a critical partner in preserving and expanding the peace and prosperity that have underpinned this dynamic region.

Chad Crowe

We have begun coordinating with like-minded countries to build out the architecture of this region, while supporting Asean centrality. Our Trilateral Summits (with Japan in 2018 and 2019) and Quadrilateral Ministerials (with Japan and Australia in 2019 and 2020) have led to greater cooperation, including on maritime security, pandemic management, regional connectivity, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and cybersecurity. Our mission over the next five years and beyond should be to give this endeavour further form and substance to enable all countries to prosper from a region that respects sovereignty and a rules-based order.

As democracies, the United States and India are committed to peace and diplomacy. In the past four years, we have purposefully deepened our defence and security cooperation to keep our nations safe, and to provide security beyond our own borders.

Our bilateral defence and security partnership reached a new level in September 2018 with the inaugural 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue of US and Indian defence and foreign policy leaders. We have held three such Ministerials and signed pivotal defence agreements at each, increasing the interoperability of our forces and defence industries. We have also expanded the complexity of a robust series of military exercises, including the first-ever tri-services exercise in 2019 and Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercise alongside Japan.

Reflecting on these and other achievements, I believe that no country has as strong a defence relationship with India as does the United States, or does as much to contribute to the security of Indians. Our close coordination has been important as India confronts aggressive Chinese activity on its border.

We need the same level of ambition in the economic sphere, where our trade and investment ties have continued to grow but are still not reaching their full potential. In 2019, bilateral trade in goods and services had grown to over $146.1 billion, significantly up from $20.7 billion in 2001.  Approximately 16% of India’s total exports now head to the United States.  The United States is India’s largest trading partner, and India the twelfth largest partner of the United States. The bottom line is that no other country contributes as much to job creation, consumer choice, technology diffusion, and economic improvement for Indians.

Another key pillar of our partnership is energy, where we have achieved significant results over the past four years. We launched our Strategic Energy Partnership in 2018 and, with support from both governments, the United States is now an important source of energy for India. By 2019, India had become the largest export destination for US coal, the fourth-largest destination for US crude, and the seventh-largest destination for US liquefied natural gas. All of this has helped diversify India’s energy sources. Today, there are over 100 US companies involved with energy in India, working across all elements of the sector.

Health and biomedical innovation has also been a top priority for both countries. Our history of successful cooperation shaped our joint response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have supported India’s efforts with technical guidance and training, including on contact tracing, diagnostic testing, and infection prevention and control at health facilities. Hundreds of Indian graduates of CDC training programmes have been at the forefront of India’s response to this virus.

In addition, US and Indian scientists have collaborated to develop vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. There remains enormous potential for further work between our health sectors, including to develop more secure medical supply chains. Our health cooperation has improved lives not just in the United States and India, but for people around the world.

In great democracies such as ours, governments listen to public sentiment. Our people-to-people ties form both a strong foundation and a driving force for our relationship. Leaders in both countries have recognised that getting this relationship right is important for us and for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. As a result of their actions, the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership is strong, positive, and on an upward trajectory.

I am proud of what we have accomplished over the past four years, and am confident that the next US administration will continue this trend with our Indian partners – as each recent US administration had successfully built upon the work of its predecessor in enhancing ties with India.

Courtesy - TOI.


Mixed picture: December GST collection is encouraging. But a quick recovery is uncertain (TOI)

Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.

The GST collection in December was Rs 1.15 lakh crore, the highest monthly inflow since its inception over three years ago. The December collection was 12% higher than the corresponding period of the previous year and it was the third consecutive month of collections in excess of Rs 1 lakh crore. This is a cause for cheer as GST collections are an important economic indicator. The government has attributed the performance to improved compliance and a rebound in economic activity.

GST collection as a proxy for a rebound in economic activity is of particular importance. It provides useful signals to both policy makers and the private sector. The key issue here is how the overall economic picture looks when GST collection is juxtaposed with other indicators. The overall picture suggests that the economy is not yet back to normal. The December data reflects November transactions. In other words, it is the culmination of festive season demand, which was partially insulated from restrictions on mobility on account of the surge in e-commerce. In the month ended mid-November, e-commerce platforms grossed Rs 58,000 crore, a 65% growth. This helped GST collections.

Will this trend hold? The answer is unclear as other indicators are not so encouraging. The core industries index shrank by 2.6% in November. Contraction in sectors such as steel and cement suggests that firms remain pessimistic. Moreover, financial conditions haven’t been more benign in years, with interest rates everywhere trending down. Yet, even as financial savings increase, banks remain risk averse. A lot of incremental deposits have found their way into government securities. The mixed picture suggests that it’s premature to believe a durable rebound is in place. The forthcoming Union Budget needs to factor that in.

Courtesy - TOI.


Monday, January 4, 2021

The greatest gift we can give ourselves (TOI)

By Sant Rajinder Singh

A new year is a new beginning, something to look forward to. At this time of the year, we generally take stock of the year gone by and plan for the year ahead, and how we can improve in various aspects of our lives.

As we resolve to improve physically, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually, we should not forget the most important arena – the spiritual arena. If our spirit is healed, we will be well in all other arenas. So, we need to focus on those activities that will heal our spirit.

The main reason we have come into this world is to know ourselves. The more we focus on what is truly important, the better use we will be making of this precious opportunity that God has given us, to realise ourselves at the level of the soul.

We need to focus on our greatest gift – the gift of this human birth. Living at the level of our physical senses, we believe that the input received through our senses is all we can experience. We spend our time searching for lasting joy and happiness in this transient world, little realising that there are spiritual worlds beyond this earth.

This world is a reflection of these spiritual worlds, which are within us and exist concurrently with the physical world. Living in this physical world, shrouded by layers of illusion, we have forgotten our true essence. We take ourselves to be the body and assume that what we experience through our physical senses is all there is to this life. As we embark on the spiritual journey, and listen to the words of saints and mystics, we awaken to the reality of our human existence.

Just as there are many channels of a television, the channel of the Divine is available to us at all times. We just need to take our attention away from the channel of the physical world and direct it towards this channel. We can do this through meditation. In meditation we can experience the divine light and sound of the Supreme. We can bask in divine light, as much as we bask in the outer sunshine here on earth.

Our time in this existence is an opportunity given to us by the Supreme. Having experienced our divine nature, we find the oneness of our soul with the creator. The process by which we can experience ourselves is called meditation. In meditation, we take our attention away from the world outside and focus it within. Journeying within, the reality of who we are becomes clear to us; our perspective changes and we begin to embrace our oneness with the Supreme and all of creation. Then we recognise that we are conscious beings. This is what the saints and spiritual masters call enlightenment.

Meditation takes our attention away from the world outside and focusses it within ourselves. It heals the spirit. We all need to meditate plenty and put in as much time as possible into our spiritual practices in the new year; it will bring progress in leaps and bounds. May the grace of God be with each of you in abundance in the new year. May this year be one in which all aspects of our life get better, and we pay more attention to the most important aspect of life, the spiritual aspect.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Acknowledge the past and welcome the new (TOI)

By Narayani Ganesh

I have always dreamt of the day when I would say those magical words, “I’m a roving editor,” in answer to the question, “And what do you do?” Once the year 2020 concludes and along with it my tenure as associate editor with this newspaper, I could possibly call myself as roving editor or writer. Either way, the nomenclature sounds so much more romantic, free-spirited and mysterious, pregnant with secret new potential. After having been a “tree minder” for more than two decades, the time has come to transcend my relationship with ‘The Speaking Tree’ and ‘Sacred Space’ as editor, and hand over the responsibility to another and become, perhaps, an occasional contributor.

In the pre-Internet days when I would often feel overwhelmed at having to plough through tomes of sacred books to crosscheck quotes and passages that contributors peppered their articles with, a colleague from HR remarked in passing, that it was such a privilege to experience wisdom from so many sources as part of my regular job whereas someone like him would have to make special time and effort to do so. Indeed.

“Hello, is that the Talking Tree?” asked an agitated voice with some urgency, at the other end of the telephone line. “Yes sir, it is,” I replied, not thinking it necessary to correct the gentleman who had reached the right phone number. He then went on to plead for henceforth perforating the space around The Speaking Tree column so that he could easily disengage the Tree for his scrapbook. I did pass on his request to the management and was informed politely that they would think about it.

The Internet and social media made perforation requests redundant what with forwarded links and instant messaging becoming common, but not without some curious experiences. Like the day I stared in horror at my cellphone’s WhatsApp screen when I discovered that the reply I had typed to an Iskcon monk ended with a stern ‘Hate Krishna’ instead of the happy and harmless ‘Hare Krishna!’ I called up forthwith and apologised, explaining that the wretched auto correct was threatening to ruin all my relationships including this one. The amused monk replied, ”Not to worry, good to hear your voice! Come visit the temple. Hare Krishna.”

That the year 2020, with the pandemic and lockdowns, restricted our physical movement, did not deter us from untethering the imagination and letting it roam (or rove) freely beyond mundane confinements. Mulling over past travel and workplace experiences allowed one to not only relive them but also find new aspects that one hadn’t noticed before. A great opportunity was afforded for those like myself to get acclimatised to non-commuting by working from home, cutting down expenses and clutter, and re-learning childhood skills like finding interesting things to do, observe, absorb, enjoy and be entertained without having to step out. And for many, it has been a joy to rediscover family relationships in real time.

I am filled with gratitude for all that did not go wrong. And for the learnings gleaned from unpleasant experiences. I am also full of compassion and empathy for those who suffered and are still suffering. Let’s hope that 2021 will unveil a new and promising chapter in all our lives and enable us to deal ably with challenges.

Courtesy - TOI.


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Aurobindo’s vision of consciousness evolution (TOI)

By Pranav Khullar

The principle of triple transformation lies at the core of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of Integral Yoga. As he maps out the psychic, spiritual and supramental dimensions of Consciousness to be awakened in his The Life Divine, Aurobindo integrates many strands of ancient Indic traditions into a unique life-affirming philosophy for the times.

For Aurobindo, life itself was unique, for it gave all the opportunity to understand, open up and realign with Divine consciousness. The seeker has to work on his own nature to become a fit instrument and channel for descent of this Consciousness.

Beyond the mind

The question of consciousness was central to Aurobindo’s philosophy of life and existence. Consciousness was not just a way of knowing reality, but could be looked upon as something which takes the seeker beyond the human mind itself, into a divine, cosmic dimension of reality. Echoing Hegel in his mapping out of the evolution of human consciousness, Aurobindo sees this phenomenal reality as expressing but one dimension of that universal consciousness, and all layers of this consciousness synthesise in the Supermind, the Absolute.  Aurobindo then takes it a step further, and visualises the descent of the universal consciousness into the physical body as the next step in evolution.

Consciousness is the Force of Being, as Aurobindo says, and not merely awareness, by which it is possible to “seek the union of our soul of mind with Universal Mind, our soul of life with Universal Life, our soul of body with Universal physical existence, consciously.” Chit-Shakti presents itself to itself through forms and procedures of Nature. And it is this spirit pervading through matter, which Aurobindo urges us to strive to know through experience. To call upon that cosmic consciousness is the true calling of every seeker, Aurobindo wrote, which will in turn give impetus to the evolutionary impulse.

Unique journey

The unique experience of Consciousness which Aurobindo elucidates, is perhaps rooted and mirrored in his own unique life journey as he evolved from a Western paradigm of classical literature, philosophy and consciousness to a Vedantic one; from a passionate political consciousness as he jumped into the national movement centre stage, to finally anchoring himself in the spiritual mission which he saw ordained for himself. All these roles were seen by Aurobindo as part of a larger purpose, which he later was to put together in his exploration of Consciousness. His diverse range of writings, from the poetry of Savitri and the political Bande Matram to the philosophical The Life Divine, mirrored this concept of Consciousness as the Force of Being which pervades each role man plays.

In mapping out the methodology of this new Consciousness, Aurobindo emphasised that the world was a real materialisation of the Absolute Consciousness. Accordingly, this physical world was capable of perfectly expressing absolute knowledge. Aurobindo believed that this would happen one day in the future, as the Divine consciousness descends into the mind-consciousness and into every form of existence, as the next step in the evolutionary blueprint of mankind.

Courtesy - TOI


Thursday, December 24, 2020

The road to Bethlehem is in your heart (TOI)

By Christopher Mendonca

Wise men in search of inner wisdom are told to journey to Bethlehem. In each case, the outward journey is undertaken only because those who do so realise that it is representative of a journey inwards. Without this subliminal awareness, they would not have any reason to undertake such a journey.

The whole point of the Christmas narrative is not so much to record history, as to reveal the reality of God’s presence among us. It is a presence that we can recognise only if we journey within, to Bethlehem in the cave of our heart. It is the road to non-duality. God is with us and in us.

The principal characters prompt us to nurture within us, their own attitudes which resulted in the discovery of true peace and inner joy. For a start, Mary and Joseph enter a Cloud of Unknowing, so essential for the genuine seeker. The scriptures emphasise that both ‘did not understand’ what they were being presented with. Yet they journeyed in faith, taking the road to Bethlehem when it would be more convenient not to do so. It means going beyond appearances to the One Reality that lies beyond them. The inner eye of the heart needs to be opened. This explains why despite the difficulties, rejection and non-recognition they encountered, they kept going on the road. Christmas does not make our problems vanish; it enables us to transform them by transcending them. We cease defining ourselves by them and can find joy in suffering.

The shepherds undergo some sort of religious experience as they behold a midnight sky lit up and hear voices beckoning them to leave their cherished flocks behind and journey to Bethlehem. They simply allow themselves to experience it, leaving behind what they are so used to identifying with – their flock. It is a symbol of the self we must leave behind, recognising it as the source of all desire. The satisfaction of desire may bring relief but rarely joy. The shepherds’ song is a song of true rejoicing, the joy of being in communion with God in whom we live, move and have our being.

The wise men have the insight to recognise that true knowledge is beyond the ability to retrieve information. From ‘being informed’ about the birth of the Saviour, they journey to Bethlehem and get blessed with inner wisdom. They experience His presence that prompts them to bypass Herod and return by a different route.

Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and wise men show us that Christmas is all about ‘neti-neti’, known in the Christian tradition as the Cloud of Unknowing. Journeying into it, we can experience the paradox of losing oneself in order to find our true Self; of understanding through an inner vision that we celebrate the fact that God who is infinite and whom the whole world cannot contain, has deigned to reveal Himself in a humanity limited by space and time.

Silent Night! Holy Night! The road to Bethlehem is the road to inner silence in which we experience Christmas joy. The celebration of Christmas need not be a drop in the ocean of merriment. Rather it may be the realisation that when the drop falls into the ocean, it ceases to be a drop because the ocean itself has become part of the drop.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

It is astonishing that farmers are speaking up to protect traders’ interests (The Indian Express)

Written by Rajiv Mehrishi 

 The APMC Act of the 1950s freed the Indian farmer from the monopoly of the local trader (a la Kanhaiyalal of Mother India), undoubtedly with substantial benefits. Equally truly, what got created were oligopolies. In practice, each trader in the mandi has built relationships with a set of farmers: The traders provide credit, the farmer then sells his produce only through that trader, to have the credit/advance against such sales adjusted. More often than not, the mandi trader is also a conduit for the sale of foodgrain at MSP (direct sale by farmers to MSP centres is virtually impossible), reducing the net received by the farmer to below MSP (the traders’ “commission” for such transactions is obviously off the books). The symbiotic relationship between particular traders and farmers, which have been created within these oligopolies, is possibly less exploitative only in comparison to the Kanhaiyalals of yore.

That taking the next step, of allowing/introducing more buyers for farm produce, would further reduce exploitation of farmers has been the wisdom-by-consensus of almost all experts, expert committees and conferences at least since the late 1980s. The logic is simple: If the farmer has a single buyer for her produce, she is most vulnerable; if there are a few buyers, she is less open to exploitation; and if there are an unlimited number of buyers, she is the best off, because she can sell to whoever offers the best price. Few can argue against this simple logic.

In fact, the much-advocated reform of the APMC laws has not happened so far due to the opposition from mandi traders, by now an influential lobby. In Rajasthan, for example, in 2004, a similar Cabinet-approved amendment to the APMC Act had to be withdrawn because traders went on strike. Opposition to changes from traders to the way, and to whom, farm produce is sold is perfectly understandable. But from the farmers? Why should farmers oppose more avenues for the sale of their produce, other than mandis, especially if no element of coercion is involved?

What changes have the three farm laws wrought? The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 gives farmers the freedom to sell outside the mandi; and to the buyer to buy at “farm gate”, without the necessity of a mandi licence. The farmer’s choice to sell within the mandi, if she so wishes, is not taken away. Reportedly, farmers believe that this reform is a precursor to the abolition of mandis and MSP. It is hard to imagine what might have made them jump to this conclusion: Any political party would have to have an extreme and unprecedented case of myopia to do away with either mandis or MSP, as it would be politically suicidal. Besides, it seems the government is prepared to give whatever assurance the farmers want on their continuation, and also to make changes in the law such as mandi fee applying to private “mandis” as well.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, basically provides for yet another much-recommended agriculture marketing reform — contract farming. This helps the farmer to transit to commercial crops, such as vegetables and fruits, which give higher returns than foodgrain sold at MSP, by assuring her the “contracted” price even if there is excess production, and prices in the market fall. Of course, the farmer is also committed to selling at the “contracted” price, even if market prices are higher, though the law does provide a means of sharing this windfall. The point, however, is that there is no element of compulsion. The farmer is free to continue sowing crops that sell at MSP, or to take her chances in the market, if she sows non-MSP crops, without entering into any contract. How can there be a protest about an additional option? If the farmers do not like the safety features of the law, such as appeals, they can seek those changes. Why they should seek a repeal of the law altogether is truly baffling.

Opinion |Pramod Kumar writes: Farmers’ protest questions reform that promotes efficiency of agriculture, not well-being of agriculturists

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 provides that storage, etc of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes can be regulated only in extraordinary circumstances such as war, famine, natural calamity, or extraordinary price rise. The EC Act, as it stood, served the interests of the consumer, especially the rather spoilt urban middle classes, by trying to get farm produce to them at low prices. It is not difficult to see that if retail prices are low, farm gate prices will be depressed too. The EC Act has also been against the interests of the farmer by discouraging investments in cold chains, warehouses, etc. Better supply/marketing chains have the potential of getting higher prices/returns for the farmer. If anything, the farmers should have agitated, from decades ago, for the amendments that they are now reportedly opposing!

In the 2004 strike in Rajasthan, the traders’ demands were uncannily similar. This is what is astonishing: The concerns of the traders — additional sale options for farm produce other than the mandis, and contract farming — are being mouthed by the farmers. What is equally astonishing is the silence of all those “intellectuals” and “experts”, barring a few exceptions, who had passionately argued for years for these reforms. Let us not let our reform imperative be informed by which party is in power.

There is obviously more to this agitation than meets the eye. To think that the farmers have been “misled” as part of a “political conspiracy” is perhaps naïve. Perhaps, the key lies in the way the MSP scheme works in certain states, and the way “big” farmer-trader relationships have worked out in such states.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 23, 2020 under the title “His Trader’s Voice”. The writer has been the CAG of India, and is a former civil servant.

Courtey - The Indian Express.

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