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The Hindu Notes for 14th March 2019

Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 14th March 2019

Down, but definitely not out

On the verge of being wiped out territorially, the Islamic State still poses a big challenge to intelligence apparatuses

  • As the fight against the dreaded terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS) is drawing to a close, issues such as the future of terrorism in West Asia and beyond and concerns about the human rights of those who had been wittingly or unwittingly drawn into the vortex of such movements offer food for thought.
  • Lost sheen

  • Credible reports point to the IS nearing extinction. What was once described as a formidable ‘Caliphate’ of enormous wealth and with huge potential for expansion is now just a dot on the soil of Syria and Iraq. Ever since it lost control last year over two major cities, Raqqa (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq), it has lost its sheen. For once the U.S.’s strategy of forming a coalition of forces, styled the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), seemed to have paid off. Added to this was the master stroke of drawing substantially on the talent of determined and dedicated Kurdish fighters.
  • A small number of hardened IS men is likely to be still hiding in the Baghouz area of Syria to offer a semblance of resistance. The SDF has taken its own time to wind up the operations there, with a view to ensuring the orderly evacuation of civilians holed up and awaiting their rescue from the IS’s clutches. Reports are that the nearest safe sanctuary for refugees, at al-Hol in northeast Syria, is now more than 60,000 strong, with women and children constituting the majority.
  • The temptation, however, to dismiss the IS as one of those upstarts which make an appearance once in a while in modern history and offer no lessons for the future has to be resisted. This is because the pull internationally for the IS was undeniably greater than for al-Qaeda. It projected a tighter hierarchy and structure, though in a smaller geography, and drew thousands of volunteers from different nations. The impact of this assembly of men and women, at times across religions, was lethal beyond belief. This model of organising people solely to unleash terror after acquiring formidable human and material resources — oil and government treasuries in the IS’s case — could be expected to inspire all those playing the card of Islamic extremism.
  • Shamima’s story

  • However powerful the message of violence and savagery that the IS sent during the past few years may be, there are facets of individual tragedy intertwined with the sordid movement that cannot be lost sight of. For example, the story of Shamima Begum, a British-born teenager who in 2015 fled with two friends to join the IS, stands out here for its uniqueness and excessive human misery.
  • Begum, 19, was in the news recently. Of the other two, one died in a bombing of Raqqa city, while there is little information on the third. Of Bangladeshi parentage, Begum was stripped of her British citizenship last year because of her IS links. In the past few months she had expressed her desire to return to her home country, obviously after being disillusioned with the IS, and mainly to seek medical treatment for a child who was ailing but subsequently passed away. Begum, who is “married” to a Dutch IS fighter, has said that she lost two other children. The Dutch fighter, 27, is now under detention in a neighbouring prisoner camp.
  • No re-entry

  • The U.K. Home Secretary, who said Begum had been denied permission to re-enter the country, has been criticised for his alleged disregard of the human rights of a young British mother now in distress. The ruling against her being let back into the U.K. highlights the modern dilemma of how exactly to blend compassion with the need to combat terror relentlessly in parts of the globe. There is the charge that the U.K. Foreign Office did not act fast enough to rescue the child, who was entitled to U.K. citizenship. In its defence, the Foreign Office is said to have taken the stand that there were too many risks involved in sending a team to Syria for this purpose.
  • Begum is one of several IS followers in Syria and Iraq who are anxious to return to their respective home countries, but cannot do so because of the hard stance of their governments against their repatriation. These governments, mostly in Europe and nations with a Muslim minority, such as Germany, France and Belgium, believe that there is no place for mercy for their citizens who left their homes consciously in order to join terror organisations. This uncompromising stand seems cruel against the backdrop of credible accounts of IS women volunteers being subjected to slavery and sexual abuse.
  • In the final analysis, the IS saga provides a case study of how the draw of terrorist ideology can gain strength, expand and then evaporate at equally fast speed. We know that extremism of any kind — including Naxalism in India — is a magnet for some young minds. The heady cocktail of a spirit of adventure and frustrations early on in life is what spurs youngsters such as Begum, and no amount of censorship or counselling, either online or in forums such as places of worship, can wean them away. Equally true is a case of swift disenchantment.
  • Shadow in the background

  • It is too soon to conclude that the IS is past history. Governments are quite conscious of the gaps in their border control measures which have enabled some IS cadres to sneak back into their home countries. This is analogous to what happened soon after the decline of al-Qaeda following Osama bin Laden’s death. The infiltration, even if it is a trickle, could be extremely dangerous if one considers the insidious nature of the sleeper cells of many terror groups which remain undetected for several years but come to notice only after their involvement in deadly operations, examples being the 9/11 (New York City in 2001) and 26/11 (Mumbai in 2008) attacks. Significantly, the Iraqi President, Barham Salih, went on record a few days ago to say that although the ‘Caliphate’ has been eliminated, there are sleeper cells and extremist groups on the Syrian border which needed to be taken care of.
  • The presence, however, of sleeper cells alone may not be sufficient for terror groups to gain ground. Experience in West Asia is that an unstable internal security situation contributes greatly to the growth of terrorism. A civil war such as the one in Yemen is conducive for even a small group to showcase its philosophy. Afghanistan is another example of a disturbed scenario that lends fodder to groups such as the Taliban. Pakistan is in the same boat, with the active assistance of its own variant of the Taliban and organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar e-Taiba.
  • It is this scenario that cautions against any optimism with regard to the IS and its future. That organisation, in its present format, may not rear its head in the future. But its followers who have exited Iraq and Syria can find ready acceptance elsewhere. This is a real challenge to intelligence apparatuses the world over.
  • The need for constitutional courage

    The Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is a title dispute, not a religious one

  • The Supreme Court’s decision to appoint a panel of mediators to resolve the long-standing Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid (Ayodhya) dispute is deeply problematic. By taking this route, the court has given the impression that the dispute is best solved outside the legal domain. In a very short span of time, the court has moved from its position of treating this as a title dispute to a matter involving religious sentiments. It has not explained what led it to change its stance, especially since mediations that have taken place in the past have failed.
  • Ambiguity in the court

  • The idea of mediation was mooted in 2017 by a Bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, J.S. Khehar. The Bench had suggested that the issue was much larger than ownership of land, and that mediation might help in “healing relations”. After Justice Khehar, Chief Justice Dipak Misra insisted on treating it as a land dispute only. Now, the court has again brought back sentiments into the legal discourse. This wavering and ambiguity in the court has accompanied the case all along.
  • Sentiment is a problematic word, especially when there are two political sentiments competing with each other. This is not a question of the majority community feeling deprived of a temple at the birth place of Lord Ram. On the other hand, it is a majoritarian political ploy masquerading as religious sentiment. This is a ploy to subjugate the minority Muslim community further, by playing a symbolic game. In this game, the numbers are stacked against Muslims. Lazy common sense holds that the minority must understand the ‘historical injustice’ done to Hindus by their ancestors and atone for it by leaving the site for them.
  • Moreover, even if we accept the notion of contending sensitivities, one must not ignore the sentiments of those Hindus who do not consider this issue as one that defines their identity. There are also many Hindus who would not like a temple to come up in Ayodhya by displacing a mosque. How will these myriad views be represented in the mediation process, which began on March 13 in Faizabad? By creating two neat sides, the court has validated the claim of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and weakened the position of the Hindus who contest this division.
  • The Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue was never religious. The BJP has always included the promise of constructing a Ram temple in its election manifestos over the years. L.K. Advani’s 1990 rath yatra not only led to the eventual demolition of the Babri Masjid, but expanded the national footprint of the BJP. The campaign was aimed at denigrating Muslims and entrenching their ‘foreignness’ in the minds of Hindus by using the figure of Babar.
  • Since the court has itself digressed from the brief before it, one can ask why it did not think it necessary to first address the criminality of an act in 1949, when the idol of Lord Ram was placed in the Babri mosque on the night of December 22, which happened much before the demolition of the mosque itself. Also, the bloodletting accompanying the demolition of the mosque cannot be dissociated from the act. Why is it that the issue of sentiments is given primacy and not the criminality of the act, when the court is equipped to address the latter? Why is the court wading into the mediation route yet again after so many years of hearing, and when the time is right for taking on majoritarian audacity?
  • Selection of mediators

  • Further, the eight-week time limit for the mediators coincides with the election campaign period and ends just before voting ends. It is not difficult to see which party will use this in its favour. If the mediation committee fails to come to a consensus, this could be used to fuel anger in Ayodhya once again, against both Muslims as well as the court.
  • It is not just the idea of mediation but the selection of mediators that casts a doubt on the process. While Justice F.M.I. Kalifullais a retired Supreme Court judge and senior advocate Sriram Panchu has been instrumental in making mediation a part of India’s legal system, what are Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s qualifications? He has not only flouted laws himself but has espoused the cause of a temple at the disputed site on multiple occasions. He is the one who said we will have a “Syria in India” if the Ram Mandir issue is not resolved soon. By no standard does Mr. Ravi Shankar qualify to be a mediator. A mediator is expected to be open-minded and fair, and if we go by his controversial statements, it looks doubtful whether he’ll be independent.
  • At times like this, we expect the apex court to uphold constitutional morality. It does not help in a political dispute to replace the constitutional route with a “humanitarian” one. The sentiment of the court to “heal relationships” is laudable. But it is only constitutional courage that can steer us through these troubled times.
  • In slow mode

    Manufacturing, inflation data give monetary policy makers room for an interest rate cut

  • Manufacturing activity in the country continues to remain becalmed. The latest Index of Industrial Production data show that output across the broad sector expanded 1.3% in January, a clear loss of momentum from the 3% pace in December and a drastic slowdown from the 8.7% growth seen in January 2018. Overall, industrial output growth slumped to 1.7%, from 2.6% in December, and 7.5% a year earlier, as production in 12 of the 23 industry groups that comprise the manufacturing sector shrank from a year earlier. These are quick estimates that are likely to be revised. But the fact that key job-creating industries, including textiles, leather and related products, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastic products, and motor vehicles, reported contractions hardly bodes well for the real economy. A look at the use-based classification of industries also gives little cause for cheer. Capital goods, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, contracted 3.2%, a telling contrast with the 12.4% expansion posted 12 months earlier. A sustained revival on this vital front may still be some time away. A recent survey by IHS Markit of business activity expectations, conducted over two weeks in the latter half of February, shows that Indian businesses plan to curb outlays on hiring and capital spending, with sentiment on capex at a one-year low. And growth in consumer durables output was an anaemic 1.8% (7.6% in January 2018), another clear sign that spending on consumption of non-essentials remains in search of favourable winds.
  • If the IIP poses cause for concern, retail inflation data hardly provide much reassurance. While price gains measured by the Consumer Price Index accelerated to a four-month high of 2.57% in February, it is the persistent deflationary trend in the prices of some farm items that is deeply disquieting, reflecting as it does a collapse in pricing power in the agrarian heartland. Vegetables, fruits and pulses and products all posted negative rates of inflation from a year earlier, of –7.69%, – 4.62% and –3.82% respectively. While urban consumers may cheer the increased affordability of vegetables and fruits, rural demand for manufactured goods will remain depressed unless there is a meaningful turnaround in the farm sector’s economic fortunes. Looking ahead, with Saudi Arabia committed to deepening its production cuts in order to keep crude oil prices well-supported, it appears unlikely that India’s fuel and energy costs will stay soft for much longer. And with political parties sure to open the spending spigot in a bid to woo voters, inflationary impulses will quicken. For now, though, with growth slowing and inflation still comfortably within the Reserve Bank’s 2%-6% target range, monetary policy makers would feel justified in pressing ahead with one more interest rate cut at their meeting next month.
  • Heavy-handed order

    The contempt law must not be used, or seen to be used, to stifle dissenting views

  • The Meghalaya High Court’s order finding the Editor and Publisher of Shillong Times guilty of contempt, and asking them to “sit in a corner” till the rising of the court and imposing a fine of ₹2 lakh each, is a heavy-handed response to comments in the newspaper on the court’s earlier orders. What makes the order even more unfortunate is the explicit threat to ban the newspaper and jail them if they fail to pay the fine. While courts are indeed empowered to decide whether a publication scandalised or tended to scandalise the judiciary or interfered with the administration of justice, there is no legal provision for an outright ban on it. The origin of these contempt proceedings appears to be the State government’s unilateral decision to withdraw certain facilities to retired judges without consulting the court administration. After the matter was not resolved on the administrative side for two months, the court initiated suo motu proceedings and issued some directions. It was because of a news item, accompanied by a commentary on the court’s directions, that the contemnors had incurred the court’s displeasure.
  • The offending comments appeared to imply that the directions regarding extending facilities, including protocol services and domestic help, and reimbursing communication bills up to ₹10,000 a month and a mobile phone worth ₹80,000, to retired judges amounted to “judges judging for themselves”. It is a moot question whether the court ought to have taken umbrage at this remark or ignored it. It would serve the cause of preserving the dignity of the higher judiciary if overzealous comments made by activists or journalists were ignored. In 1999, the Supreme Court had brushed aside some adverse remarks by activists by saying, “the court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off their comments.” However, in the case of Patricia Mukhim, the Editor of Shillong Times, the court has made sweeping remarks that the newspaper had always attacked individuals and institutions, had published propaganda calling for bandhs and “was always working against judges and the judicial system”. The defence argued the court should frame specific charges before convicting them for contempt. However, the matter was tried summarily. While it is open to the court to try a case of contempt in a summary manner, the use of personalised views of the publication’s past record to hand down the verdict puts a question mark over the decision-making process. While there may be a need to curb tendentious criticism of the judiciary and self-serving comments on ongoing proceedings in mainstream and social media, there is a compelling case to use the contempt law sparingly, and avoid the impression that it is being used to stifle free speech or dissent. Lenience, not anger, ought to be the primary response of a detached judiciary.
  • India’s grand strategy on Pakistan

    Develop a sophisticated counterterrorism strategy, while exuding a vision of peaceful coexistence

  • When a society’s patience wears thin, one of two things typically happen. Either its leaders embark on a bold new direction, or they spin a story for their domestic audience and carry on as before. What the Modi government has undertaken recently, in response to Pakistan’s relentless proxy war, defies a neat description. It is true that an impending national election provided abundant motives to make political capital through publicised air strikes. There is little doubt on that score, and many have called upon the government to resist from brazen use of the ‘national security’ card in mobilising public opinion.
  • A clear shift

  • Nevertheless, the willingness to take the fight to the Pakistani heartland and cultivate a measure of uncertainty is a clear departure from the policy of strategic restraint. Regardless of the specific tactical outcomes from India’s air strike — whether it was intended as a warning shot to demonstrate “capacity and will” or whether it sought to degrade high-value targets — the signal to Pakistan and its benefactors was unambiguous: India could respond to a major Pakistani-linked terror attack in ways that would undermine the costless proxy war that Pakistan has waged since 1989. And, even if the main impetus for this shift in strategy was domestic politics in India, the geostrategic consequences will outlast this phase.
  • What has India got from the air strikes? We can point to three gains. The idea that India has a right to pre-emptive self-defence — a right that so far has been the exclusive privilege of the Western powers — has been legitimised by the reaction and behaviour of the great powers during the crisis. The External Affairs Ministry’s February 26 statement spelled out the Indian case as a “non-military pre-emptive action” to make it consistent with the norms that have been guiding other major states in their counter-terrorism policies. The idea that the Pakistan army and its intelligence services could wage a costless proxy war against Indian military targets in Kashmir has also been challenged. By signalling that India has the ability to strike at specifically those targets that are intended to inflict casualties on Indian security forces instead of waiting to confront these proxies on Indian soil, it has created a measure of uncertainty in the minds of Pakistani planners. In strategic vocabulary, this would be described as active defence — passive defence being when you fight on terms set by your adversary. While total deterrence is unrealistic, Delhi has made the other side conscious that its actions could produce unpredictable consequences. Ambiguity about future Indian responses to state-sponsored terror, it is envisaged, will persuade Pakistan to tread more carefully. Finally, by raising the stakes in a long-standing proxy war, Delhi has brought Pakistan’s patrons to consider more responsible and active roles in persuading it to restrain its destabilising behaviour. Changing perceptions of third parties is directly linked to India’s resolve to adapt its posture of strategic restraint.
  • The next challenge before Indian security planners is to incorporate this approach as part of a grand strategy. What could be its principal elements? What goals should India seek? Should it focus solely on Pakistan’s external behaviour, or more logically also keep an eye on its internal structure as part of a long-range effort to re-orient domestic incentives inside Pakistan? How can other pieces of the geopolitical puzzle in terms of Pakistan’s international allies and partners, specifically the U.S. and China, be rejigged closer to India’s aims and interests? Finally, what measures could India take to formulate an enlightened approach towards J&K that can straddle the trifecta of security, economic development, and governance?
  • The military counterpart of an Indian grand strategy would involve a more robust internal security framework, including the introduction of more advanced counter-terror capabilities and doctrines that seek to substantially minimise Indian military casualties in Kashmir (since 2008, 740 security forces personnel have lost their lives), patiently building covert proxy capabilities that impose reciprocal costs on Pakistani security institutions, and a more sophisticated conventional military posture that can offer the political leadership a variety of highly limited and targeted options to degrade the flow of terrorist networks while also presenting the Pakistan army with a costly choice to escalate to a bigger conventional clash. There is nothing unusual or provocative in this approach.
  • The larger canvas

  • There is a geopolitical counterpart to an Indian strategy too. It must be recognised that although Pakistan cannot be isolated, its patrons and allies, many of whom seek to develop deeper ties with India, can be persuaded in their own interests to influence Pakistani behaviour. We are already seeing evidence of this. In remarkably similar ways, China, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are nudging Pakistan to rein in its destabilising behaviour. Notice China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks after the Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in late February: “We agreed to jointly combat all forms of terrorism… Especially important is to eradicate the breeding grounds of terrorism and extremism.” While their reasons might be selfish, vigilant third parties can work to India’s advantage. But nobody is going to help a country that sits on its hands.
  • Unless India conceives a broader plan to alter Pakistan’s behaviour and its internal setting, it will find it difficult to sustain international support and it would only embolden the Pakistan army to up the ante knowing the Indian side is utterly unprepared for a serious game. India can engage in calculated risks, avoid publicising everything it does, and yet remain receptive to engagement with the civilian government and, more importantly, the Pakistani people, towards whom it must exude a vision of peaceful coexistence. To evoke George F. Kennan, “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem… is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
  • A model policy for women in the police

    It must ensure equal opportunities for women in all aspects of policing as well as a safe and enabling work environment

  • Women constitute about 7% of the police strength in India. This number is expected to rise, with many States and Union Territories providing for 30% (and more) reservation for women in the police in specific ranks. However, this is not enough. The discourse on mainstreaming women in the police by making policing inclusive, non-discriminatory and efficient in India is missing in policy circles.
  • Need for policies

  • One way to mainstream women in the police is to develop a model policy that will challenge the deep-rooted patriarchy in the institution. Unfortunately, till now, not a single State police department has attempted to even draft such a policy. Thus, neither the Central nor State governments can get very far by merely adopting reservation to increase gender diversity without considering the need for policymaking. A model policy, while laying the foundation for equal opportunities for women in every aspect of policing, should also strive to create a safe and enabling work environment. Without this, all other efforts will remain piecemeal.
  • One of the first steps to ensure a level playing field for women in the police is to increase their numbers. Merely providing reservation is not enough; police departments should develop an action plan to achieve the target of 30% or more in a time-bound manner. This also applies to States that have not provided a quota as yet. Departments should also undertake special recruitment drives in every district to ensure geographical diversity. To achieve the target, the police should reach out to the media and educational institutions to spread awareness about opportunities for women in the police. Current data reveal that most women in the police are concentrated in the lower ranks. Efforts should be made to change this. The impulse to create women-only battalions for the sake of augmenting numbers should be eliminated.
  • Second, the model policy should strive to ensure that decisions on deployment of women are free of gender stereotyping to facilitate bringing women into leading operational positions. At present, there appears to be a tendency to sideline women, or give them policing tasks that are physically less demanding, or relegate them to desk duty, or make them work on crimes against women alone. Women police officers should be encouraged to take on public order and investigative crimes of all types, and should be given duties beyond the minimum mandated by special laws. Desk work too must be allocated evenly among men and women.
  • A major burden of family and childcare responsibilities falls on women. Yet, police departments still lack proper internal childcare support systems. Departments need to be mindful of this social reality and exercise sensitivity in making decisions on transfers and posting of women personnel. As far as possible, women should be posted in their home districts in consultation with supervising officers.
  • Most State police departments have received funds under the Modernisation of State Police Forces Scheme for providing separate toilets and changing rooms for women, and for constructing separate accommodation for women with attached toilets in all police stations and units. Police departments must ensure the best use of this fund.
  • Preventing sexual harassment

  • Police departments must also ensure safe working spaces for women and adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination and harassment, in order to make policing a viable career option for women. Departments are legally bound to set up Internal Complaints Committees to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. Departments must operationalise the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.
  • Some of these suggestions have already been made by the National Conference of Women in Police. However, Central and State governments have not yet developed or adopted a comprehensive framework towards achieving substantive gender equality.
  • Stop celebrating Women’s Day

    An appeal for a different choice of words

  • Another International Women’s Day (IWD) has passed, and with it another barrage of special offers on clothes, jewellery, perfumes, and spas that made it all about consumerism rather than an acknowledgement that, overall, women are not treated as the equal of men, and that we need to do better. All day on March 8, I saw the women on my social media timeline expressing their weariness with this tokenism and, yes, opportunism on the parts of marketers and advertisers who think that IWD is a perfect time to flog all manner of ‘feminine’ things to women.
  • Perhaps a slightly different choice of word might help brands spend those advertising and marketing rupees that are burning a hole in their pockets. Instead of celebrating IWD, why not observe it with all the solemnity with which we accord a religious fast, or a day like Muharrum or Good Friday? Why not let it be a day in which we take special pains to point out how much we fall short on this count, and what must be done?
  • From the perspective of consumer-facing companies it might be useful for them to report publicly on how much equality they have within the organisations that are behind them. There are many questions they can answer (and readers are invited to suggest more which the writer of this piece might not see because of male privilege).
  • These questions could include: What percentage of their workforce do women constitute? How many of their senior leadership are women? Bonus points for women CEOs. Are women paid the same as men for doing the same job? What is their policy on maternity leave? Do they also have equal amounts of paternity leave which they insist men take so that they also take equal responsibility for parenthood? Do they have a room for nursing mothers? Do they have childcare facilities? Have they stopped making things for women that are default coloured pink? Could garment sellers make women’s clothes with pockets? Not all women want to carry handbags because there are either no pockets or tiny ones on their clothes. Do they market to women in the same way they market to men? Do they target both genders, like sell pressure cookers to men, cars to women? (Obviously, this is aside from products that cater only to women’s or men’s biological differences.) Do their ads show women and men doing the same things, without tired gender stereotypes? What percentage of their CSR budgets go to women’s rights issues? If they have a good record on these, they get to brag; otherwise, they shut up.
  • Over time, we will see more and more companies doing this, until it becomes ubiquitous. And perhaps even boring. Then we might find that the mindless commercialism of IWD has given way to something more meaningful. Perhaps even transformative, as it was meant to be.