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The Hindu Notes for 10th December 2018

  • Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 10th December 2018
  • Delhi and Paris: A tale of two cities

    Stirring reminders of the distance travelled and challenges ahead in securing human rights

  • Paris flared — Paris, which the divine sun had sown with light, and where in glory waved the great future harvest of Truth and of Justice.
  • Émile Zola, Paris
  • I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life
  • Mirza Ghalib
  • Exactly 70 years ago, on December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly met in Paris. Delegates from the world’s many ends met at the hilltop Palais de Chaillot and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The text had been propelled by Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the drafting committee, and honed by some of the finest minds, scholars, legal and political idealists, visionaries. Selected by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to represent India in the drafting exercise, Hansa Mehta from Gujarat brought to the exercise her own distinctive feminism. Seeing the draft Article 1, “All men are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Hansaben intervened to say the times had changed and the line should read, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Roosevelt applauded and embraced the amendment.
  • Human beings

  • In the post-Hitler, post-Hiroshima world that phrase meant more than any two could. The delegates to the Assembly nourished visions of a global transformation. But, given that of the 58 member-nations, as many as 10 including the Soviet Union, South Africa and Saudi Arabia abstained or did not vote, the delegates must have understood that a document as idealistic as theirs would run into conceptual difficulties and be chronically short in application.
  • But they could not have imagined that on the Declaration’s 70th anniversary, Paris, the Declaration’s birthplace, would be the venue of a flaming stir, with cars burning along the Champs-Élysées, bringing life in the French capital to a stop. And that, as Emile Chabal has shown in these pages (Editorial page, The Hindu, December 6, 2018), provincial France and even France’s Indian Ocean island of La Réunion would see sit-ins, blockades. Over what? Not something sporadic or transient or ‘local’ but over issues at the heart of the Universal Declaration: dignity, justice and equality.
  • The ‘Yellow Vest’ Paris riots which have shaken French President Emmanuel Macron’s government are about much more than fuel price hikes, the immediate trigger. Following the stunning outburst, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a six-month reprieve from the hike, only to be rebuffed by the protesters as “too little, too late”. Damien Abad, one of the youngest elected members of the European Parliament, said, “What we are asking of you Mr. Prime Minister, is not a postponement. It’s a change of course.”
  • If in the days preceding the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, Paris saw scalding fire, Delhi saw a scorching ire. An unprecedented rally, with tens of thousands of farmers, men and women from all parts of India, catalysed by the intrepid spokesman for farmer and Dalit rights, Palagummi Sainath, and powered by kisan unions, converged in the national capital. They asked for farm loan waivers and for decent agricultural prices to be honoured. And then marching to Parliament, they demanded a session to discuss what has been a key concept in the UDHR: dignity. They asked that Parliament should discuss farmers’ dignity threatened by the agrarian crisis in India which has led, from 1998 to 2018, to the suicides of some 300,000 farmers. Speaker after speaker at the rally spoke of agriculture being India’s life, not just a feeder line.
  • The language used in Paris and Delhi has great similarities: business gets tax-cuts, agriculture gets diesel hikes. Factories get investments, farms do not even get minimum prices, affecting a human right described in Article 23 of the UDHR: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”
  • Delhi’s way

  • Even as leaders of almost all major Opposition parties joined the rally, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government led by Arvind Kejriwal bolstered it with moral and material support. Delhi, instead of being the target, became the very life, the soul, of the farmers’ protest.
  • But Paris’s flare and Delhi’s glare notwithstanding, the Declaration is under severe strain, globally. Primarily because governments are, literally, laws unto themselves and also because the UDHR, though it has become part of the constitution and laws of several countries which attained independence after it was proclaimed, is not legally binding. It stirs a nation’s conscience, not its laws. Law-makers and conscience-keepers coalesce but rarely. For most of the time, they are a species apart.
  • Curbs on dissenters can be seen around the globe, from China to Brazil, from India through Egypt and Turkey to the U.S. Myanmar which says ‘no room’ to its own Rohingya disregards Article 14, and Pakistan which hounds out Asia Bibi disregards Article 18.
  • Terrorism mutilates that most fundamental human right — to life. It has done that in India. On UDHR70 we mourn terror’s victims in Kashmir, among who are brave defence and security personnel on duty. But on UDHR70 we grieve no less for the pellet-blinded, the collaterally killed innocents of the Valley.
  • Torture, physical and mental, has been used through time and around the globe by states and non-state tyrants. India, no exception to the gross pattern, signed, during I.K. Gujral’s prime ministership, the UN Convention Against Torture. But subsequent governments of India have refrained from ratifying it. Why? Do they think custodial torture is an inherent — read ‘internal’ — prerogative of statehood which the world has no business commenting on? Emotional pain and fear can be felt in a myriad ways. Group-isolating can be incredibly painful, frightening. The reported acquisition of land in Assam’s Goalpara district for a ‘detention camp’ has been denied by the government, but the prospect brings to mind detention scenes from the world’s history of ethnic ghetto-ing.
  • Human rights violations are not a ‘state-gone berserk thing’ alone. Society violates it in India with vigour. If the invoking of ‘sedition’ reflects state intolerance, what is one to say of the murder in cold blood of dissenters and whistle-blowers? India bans in law but perpetuates in practice manual scavenging. It bans in law but lives with child marriage. It bans pre-natal gender screening but is unable to stop it and that which follows, female foeticide.
  • Crimes against women, children in India seem unabating. We are in shame, unforgivable, unredeemable shame, to cite extreme examples, over the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in the national capital and of a child in Kashmir’s Kathua district. If the Kathua murder had bigotry lurking over it, the beheading of a 13-year-old Dalit girl in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district was laced with caste contempt. The Indian woman, if she is Dalit, tribal or vulnerable in age or personal circumstance, is all the more at risk.
  • The Sentinelese’s reflexive act against the misguided tourist who beached on their quiet shore has scarcely been appreciated by the average Indian. But he will applaud the ill-advised plan to convert that ecologically fragile archipelago into a dazzling tourist haven.
  • Rainbow on the horizon

  • But this anniversary must not let grim facts obscure the ‘rights rainbow’ on the sky.
  • India’s judiciary is the first of its vibgyor colours. The Supreme Court’s emphatic position on the right to privacy, among others, stands out. As does its sage extension of the deadline for those contesting their non-inclusion in the National Register of Citizens for Assam. Justice S.K. Kaul’s order in the Madras High Court in the Perumal Murugan case, upholding the freedom of a writer to write, is something the UDHR would hail. Next, our Parliament, which has given us the Right to Information Act, following campaign advocacy by Aruna Roy and her colleagues. The third is that part of our media which will not be scared or suborned. The fourth, our security personnel, protecting our safety and our human rights activists protecting our liberty. The fifth, our creative cultural icons who will not surrender their autonomy. The sixth, our remarkable Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy.
  • And, finally, the seventh, vox populi! India’s free elections are a ‘UDHR asset’. The massive victory of the Left Front in Kerala’s just-concluded panchayat elections, overcoming the right-wing lurch on Sabarimala, shows a silent majority’s peaceable wisdom, and strength. Tomorrow, there will another unfurling of that rainbow.
  • Paris, on December 10, 1948, liberated rights from state and social shackles. They must stay liberated, and celebrated.
  • A party at the crossroads

    The BSP faces a situation in which it either emerges stronger nationally or loses significance beyond Uttar Pradesh

  • The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) finds itself at a unique juncture that is important for the party and for democratic and contemporary politics. As a party, it has faced trials in the form of desertions, factionalism and turmoil. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BSP could not win even a single seat in its stronghold, Uttar Pradesh. Since then, it continues to face many pressures.
  • Right wing influences

  • Hindutva politics has begun to influence its base of voters. Dalit youth leaders, tapping into a new aggressive language being used against the dominant social groups, are emerging as a challenge to the party and its leader Mayawati (picture) by trying to mobilise the Scheduled Castes (SCs). These younger leaders have emerged through social movements that have sprung up in reaction to atrocities against SCs. In its initial years, the BSP had used this kind of aggressive language. In a way, the use of language as a strong mobilisational tool for oppressed communities is a reminder of a similar instance in Maharashtra in the 1970s with the Dalit Panthers.
  • All these factors have led to the BSP facing a situation wherein it could emerge stronger or shrink further and lose its position as a political party of significance. Data show that the party’s social base has shrunk to almost the level from which it began. Though the BSP remains a party of significance in terms of the vote share it recorded in the 2014 parliamentary elections and the U.P. Assembly elections in 2017 (around 22%), it has failed to maintain its strong position.
  • At the national level, an analysis of vote share data for the Lok Sabha polls between 2009 and 2014 shows that the party’s nationwide vote share has declined from over 6% to 4.1%. So it needs a base expansion, which is why the party is trying hard to make a mark again not only in U.P. but also in other States. If it does make a mark in the Assembly elections now, it could become a significant factor in the politics of alliance formation in U.P. for the general election next year.
  • Perhaps Ms. Mayawati has recognised the importance of alliances. For example, in Karnataka, it formed an alliance with the Janata Dal (S), though its Minister quit the JD(S)-Congress coalition government recently. Based on this model, it also tried to form an alliance with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In the last mentioned State, it eventually went into an alliance with Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (J). The BSP’s attempt to make these elections multipolar may fragment the anti-BJP votes and ultimately harm the prospects of the Congress. There are some in the BSP who subscribe to the line ‘pahale harenge, phir harayenge (first will face defeat and then will defeat others’), so the vote-cutting (vote katawa) construct may be a unique way in which the BSP is positioning itself in States where it is not a main contender.
  • In Madhya Pradesh, the BSP has influence in the Bundelkhand region, parts of Baghelkhand-Rewa, Satana division and the Bhind-Morena areas of the Chambal region. In Chhattisgarh, the BSP and Mr. Jogi’s party seem to be influential in the Bilaspur and Janjgir areas and in places adjoining the Maharashtra border. The combination could also cut into votes in parts of these States where the Dalit-Bahujan communities are substantial in number and politically aware of Ambedkarite and Kanshiram-led Dalit-Bahujan politics.
  • If a mahagathbandhan, with say the Samajwadi Party, fails to emerge in U.P. in time for the general election, it could prove difficult to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Another poor showing in U.P. could result in deeper cracks in the BSP. Dissensions, desertions and inner conflict could become more open, with Ms. Mayawati losing her support base among the Dalit-Bahujan poor and the marginalised. Some could even gravitate towards the BJP and the Congress. So the BSP may be a puzzle for other political parties. One has to wait and watch how the BSP resolves these issues and creates a niche for itself.
  • Death in the air

    It is time clean air is made a front-line political issue

  • As an environmental scourge that killed an estimated 1.24 million people in India in 2017, air pollution should be among the highest policy priorities. But the Centre and State governments have tended to treat it as a chronic malaise that defies a solution. The deadly results of official apathy are outlined in the Global Burden of Disease 2017 report on the impact of air pollution on deaths, disease burden, and life expectancy across the states of India, published by The Lancet. Millions of people are forced to lead morbid lives or face premature death due to bad air quality. India’s national standard for ambient fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is notoriously lax at 40 micrograms per cubic metre, but even so, 77% of the population was exposed to higher levels on average. No State met the annual average exposure norm for PM2.5 of 10 micrograms per cubic metre set by the World Health Organisation. If the country paid greater attention to ambient air quality and household air pollution, the researchers say, people living in the worst-affected States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand could add more than 1.7 years to their life expectancy. Similar gains would accrue nationwide, but it is regions with low social development, reflected partly in reliance on solid fuels for cooking, and those with ambient air pollution caused by stubble-burning, construction dust and unbridled motorisation such as Delhi that would benefit the most.
  • Sustainable solutions must be found for stubble-burning and the use of solid fuels in households, the two major sources of pollution, and State governments must be made accountable for this. The Centre should work with Punjab and Haryana to ensure that the machinery already distributed to farmers and cooperatives to handle agricultural waste is in place and working. A mechanism for rapid collection of farm residues has to be instituted. In fact, new approaches to recovering value from biomass could be the way forward. The proposal from a furniture-maker to convert straw into useful products will be keenly watched for its outcomes. A shift away from solid fuels to LPG in millions of low-income homes has provided health benefits, TheLancet study says, underscoring the value of clean alternatives. The potential of domestic biogas units, solar cookers and improved biomass cookstoves has to be explored, since they impose no additional expenditure on rural and less affluent households. Such measures should, of course, be complemented by strong control over urban sources of pollution. India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change require a sharp reduction in particulates from fossil fuel. Fuels may be relatively cleaner today and vehicles better engineered to cut emissions, but traffic densities in cities have led to a rise in pollution. Real-time measurement of pollution is also lacking. There are not enough ground-level monitoring stations for PM2.5, and studies primarily use satellite imagery and modelling to project health impacts. Rapid progress on clean air now depends on citizens making it a front-line political issue.
  • Tyranny of the majority

    India is bombarded with electoral rhetoric that is shorn of care for citizens who inhabit desolate worlds

  • Every person who aspires to political power ought to read the book, Considerations on Representative Government, by John Stuart Mill. Ideally, democracy is not the best form of government, wrote Mill, unless it ensures that the majority is unable to reduce everyone, but itself, to political insignificance. The book neatly demolishes facile arguments that a majority group has some unspecified right to imprint its will on the body politic. In democracies, the very idea of majority rule is trumped by the grant of fundamental rights. Paramount among these is the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion, caste, class, gender and sexual preferences. What group we belong to, what faith we profess and what language we speak is irrelevant. Each citizen is an equal shareholder in the political system.
  • A momentous transition

  • The makers of our Constitution were committed to this understanding of democracy. On October 17, 1949, H.V. Kamath moved an amendment in the Constituent Assembly. The Preamble to the Constitution, he suggested, should begin with the phrase “In the name of God”. Similar amendments were moved by Shibban Lal Saxena and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Other members vociferously disagreed. Hriday Nath Kunzru observed that we should not impose our feelings on others: “We invoke the name of God, but I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.” The amendment was defeated. The Constitution obligates the holders of power to respect the principle of religious neutrality.
  • The commitment was significant, because by the mid-1940s religion no longer belonged to the realm of private faith. It had been transformed into a mode of politics that laid claims to power in the public domain. The transition proved momentous for Indian politics. Though prominent leaders assured minorities, time and again, that they would not be discriminated against for any reason, right-wing groups continued to assert that the religious majority had a natural right to rule India. This belief shaped the dark underside of collective political imaginations. Still these ideas were contained, at least till recently, by the intent and the framework of the Constitution.
  • Take the S.R. Bommai v. Union of India case (1994). The Supreme Court ruled that equality is the essential basis of the Constitution. Equality is a default principle, irrespective of the religious affiliation of citizens. Correspondingly the Indian state is not expected to privilege one religion over another, because it is neither religious nor irreligious. But matters are dramatically different today. Rulings of the Supreme Court are openly flouted by leaders of the BJP and its ideological cohorts. Shrill voices have become more aggressive and truculent. Cadres of the Hindutva brigade have no hesitation in intimidating citizens. The foundations of our democratic system tremble.
  • Consider the provocative statements issued by right-wing leaders in the Sabarimala and Ayodhya cases. Political commentators find the escalation of hysteria and provocative speeches unsurprising. After all, we are at the end of Assembly elections in five States, and general elections are around the corner. The topmost priority has to be given to religious practices. The Prime Minister, who is required to represent the interests of all Indians, remains silent. Narendra Modi is seldom at a loss for words, but he cannot find the words to condemn the rising tide of bigotry and hate, and the insistent subversion of democracy.
  • A crucial juncture

  • India stands at a crucial juncture before the general elections. On the one hand is the party in power that has visited ill-being on the people through demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), harassment of universities, sabotage of institutions, violations of fundamental rights, the sanction of public lynchings, and now murder of a policeman. Gone is the emphasis on achhe din, the commitment to economic development, jobs, agrarian transformation, money in bank accounts, and governance. Today we see little else than religion as a frighteningly threatening form of politics.
  • On the other hand stands the Congress, the inheritor of the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Many Indians hoped that the party would relentlessly zero in on the dangerous threat to constitutional democracy. The party should have tapped minds and hearts with promises of restoration of the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy. It should have called for a second freedom struggle. But the Congress has opted to become an anaemic version of the BJP, with tilak-sporting, temple-going, and gotra-conscious leaders. The BJP has lived up to its ignoble reputation as a party of the majority and for the majority. The Congress has no distinctive ideology. It has forgotten the example set by Nehru. During the Partition riots, Nehru was physically there, in the killing fields of Punjab and in Delhi, persuading people to desist from violence, assuring Muslims safety, and protecting Indians against each other. Today the party fights shy of being branded as a protector of the rights of all Indians.
  • Regional parties are hailed as a perfect political institution for a federal India. Yet most regional leaders, and their progeny, tend to treat their States as feudal fiefs. Fewer have a vision that is truly national. What has happened to political creativity, to projects that map out new paths, and to the confidence that democracy must be truly representative so that the majority does not reduce others to insignificance?
  • Leaders should take inspiration from French President Emmanuel Macron. Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he courageously took on some of the most populist of Europe’s leaders, at a function to mark a century since the end of World War I. He affirmed an axiom that had already been articulated by Rabindranath Tagore: “Patriotism is the opposite of nationalism.” In the audience were U.S. and Russian Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, respectively, two leaders who have adopted muscular nationalism as their political credo. Mr. Macron urged leaders not to forget the slaughter “one hundred years after a massacre whose scars are still visible on the face of the world”. There is a lesson to be learnt from this advice.
  • In India, we are bombarded with electoral rhetoric that is shorn of care, compassion for, or commitment to citizens who live in frighteningly desolate worlds. These worlds are inhabited by impoverished farmers, insecure workers in the informal sector who lost their jobs after demonetisation and the imposition of GST, minorities who are increasingly rendered irrelevant, the so-called lower castes who are deprived of security, and women who are subjected to hateful stereotypes. Elections give citizens an opportunity to discuss policies and proposed political agendas, and exercise free choice. The forthcoming election breeds pessimism at the lack of choices.
  • Unimplementable orders

    Two recent judgments look like they will remain on paper

  • In 1981, the Supreme Court passed an order directing the shifting of some graves in Doshipura in Varanasi from a Muslim graveyard, but the order is yet to be implemented. Similarly, while some were debating how implementable the recent verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple is, the order fixing timings for bursting of firecrackers during Diwali this year was flouted with impunity.
  • Recently the court has passed two orders which I fear will remain on paper. In the first, the court has asked each High Court to designate as many sessions and magistrate courts in the concerned States to try criminal cases against sitting and former MPs and MLAs. The government informed the court that there are 4,122 criminal cases pending against MPs and MLAs in 440 districts across the country.
  • A case takes time to decide. The cumbersome Code of Criminal Procedure must be followed. Charges must be framed, witnesses must be examined and cross-examined, documents must be adduced in evidence, and arguments must be heard. Only then can a well-considered judgment be delivered. Moreover, the witnesses and even the investigating authorities may turn hostile.
  • The existing number of courts in India are already overburdened with 33 million pending cases. Should a section of them give up dealing with the cases before them and only deal with these cases relating to MPs and MLAs? Then their cases will have to be handed over to other judges, who are similarly overburdened.
  • The second order in question is for implementing the Witness Protection Scheme of 2018. It is well known that nowadays it is nearly impossible to get independent witnesses in criminal cases. If someone sees a crime, the tendency is to avoid getting into trouble by deposing about it to the police or the court, which may invite reprisal by the party against whom the witness gives evidence. Consequently, a judge is rarely sure that the witness is being truthful. To mitigate this outcome the government has framed a Witness Protection Scheme, but how practicable is it? The scheme proposes giving witnesses a new identity. There are over 28.4 million cases pending in subordinate courts in India, of which perhaps 70% are criminal cases. If on an average there are half a dozen witnesses in each case, this may require change of identity for millions of people. Is this feasible, financially or logistically?
  • Other proposals also appear unrealistic. The scheme mentions providing police escort to the courtroom, temporary safe houses and relocation of the witness. But how simple is it to relocate an individual whose job requires him to be at a fixed location? For how long and to how many will the police provide protection?
  • Unless orders factor in these considerations, they may go the way of the Doshipura graveyard.