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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

Letter to the Readers No 22 - Mainstream, August 22, 2020

Friday 21 August 2020


Over the past many years sections of society in India have been campaigning for the repeal of the sedition, defamation and contempt laws which are part of a colonial legacy when dissent was criminalised. Prominent figures of India’s freedom movement including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were repeatedly jailed under these laws. A day before India’s 73rd anniversary of Independence, the Indian Supreme Court passed an order charging the prominent lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, as guilty of contempt of court. Citizens groups, lawyers organisations, human rights groups and trade unions have appealed to the Supreme Court to recall its decision. How can two tweets by a lawyer undermine the authority of the all-powerful Court or the administration of justice? There has been widely shared criticism of the Supreme Court regarding inordinate delays in matters of national importance or on questions of fundamental rights that required the urgent attention of the highest court. Among examples are cases pertaining to Jammu & Kashmir (which involved habeas corpus and fundamental rights) that have gone on forever, or been put in cold storage; the one regarding electoral bonds that deals with funding of the political parties has been nearly side-lined by the Court. It failed in its constitutional duty in handling the cases regarding the plight of migrants from across India during the Covid-19 lockdown; the Supreme Court disposed of petitions without scrutiny and accepted explanations offered by the government which were often totally baseless. The court has disappointed many people by dismissing a petition challenging the lack of transparency in the PM Cares Fund.

Silencing a lawyer, who has filed numerous public interest litigations to seek transparency and accountability in state institutions and has campaigned for judicial independence, bodes ill for Indian democracy already under strain. In the past three decades, he has taken up pro bono cases in defence of social justice movements in India and against rights abuses by the BJP-led government. Many journalists, student activists, academics, writers critical of the government have been booked or arrested in recent years, and now the possible arrest of a prominent lawyer and human rights defender will amplify the bad news on the health of freedom of speech in India. The highest court of the country must continue its role to defend and guarantee constitutional freedoms. Its recent verdict on women’s inheritance rights, which expands a Hindu woman’s right to be a joint legal heir and inherit ancestral property on terms equal to male heirs, is to be welcomed as it creates grounds to usher in much needed social change.

A huge controversy has broken out after a Wall Street Journal report on how Facebook executives in India allowed the BJP’s hateful propaganda to go unchecked on Facebook. Opposition politicians have called for an inquiry and written to Facebook. Now a prominent Facebook executive in India has filed a criminal complaint against a journalist, and this which should be construed as a direct attack on Freedom of Press.

The Covid pandemic continues to take its toll. India now has had an overall figure surpassing 2.8 million Coronavirus cases and is now clocking well over 50,000 cases per day. On August 19 there were 69,196 new cases, at a time of heavy monsoon rains leading to floods playing havoc in many parts of India. The Covid crisis has led to a worsening of the economic situation. New data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), indicates that organised sector jobs have seen a huge decline, with a total loss estimated at 18.9 million between April to July 2020. The job losses in the two weeks after the lockdown of April 2020 seems to have been around 50 million. The ILO says that the pandemic is expected to wipe out 100 million jobs in India and sink close to 400 million people in the informal sector in deep poverty. This suggests a very precarious economic future for large numbers in the country. At a time of such job scarcity, there cannot be room for parochial and divisive solutions such as the one just announced by the Madhya Pradesh Government to reserve all government jobs for “children of the State”. This is a discriminatory throwback into anti-constitutional nativism as opposed to equal treatment of all citizens in the matter of jobs irrespective of place of birth. The law of the land permits common citizens from across India the freedom to work in different regions. One can only imagine what would happen if each State in India were to exclude citizens of another region from getting government jobs. The principle of equality must be respected. The Central Government must pour money to not only expand the rural employment guarantee programme throughout the country but it should develop an urban employment guarantee programme at the earliest.

It is very tragic that Russia’s main Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in a state of coma after alleged poisoning. Following the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a vocal critic of Putin, he filled the void, and since 2009 has been a very active figure posing uncomfortable questions on corruption in government. Over the past many years he has faced repeated arrests and intimidation on some pretext or the other. In 2017, he was attacked by several men who threw antiseptic in his face, damaging one eye and last year he was poisoned and survived after prolonged treatment. It is therefore particularly shocking to hear of his being in a grave condition and placed on a ventilator as well as intensive care. It seems that there are offers to help him with specialised medical care in Germany and France. Nobody knows if he will survive this second attempt on his life. We wish him a speedy recovery and express solidarity with his immediate family and supporters. Russia remains a very unsafe place for independent political leaders, journalists, artists, rights activists and there is little hope of that changing now that a managed referendum this summer has given Vladimir Putin a long rope to stay in power for years to come.

By the way we remind our readers that August 21, 2020 was the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination

The seventh death anniversary of the rationalist, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, falls this week, and the perpetrators of this heinous crime have still not been brought to justice. His assassination was followed by killings of other rationalists like Com. Govind Pansare, Prof. MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, whose killers have also not been apprehended as yet. And, the killers of all these people are part of the Hindutva Far-Right who continue to enjoy the protection of those in power today.

The widely acclaimed Hindustani classical music vocalist of the ‘Mewati Gharana’ music school, Pandit Jasraj, who was 90, passed away on August 17, 2020 in New Jersey. He is said to have been inspired by Begum Akhtar as he took to classical music performances. He made his debut as a tabla player in 1937 and sung at his first public concert in 1952. He is said to have been very versatile and also sang in films when the compositions were based on raagas. His passing marks the end of an era.

The prominent cricketer Chetan Chauhan, who was later a member of the Indian Parliament, has passed away on August 16 2020 in Delhi.

Sayeda Khanam, a professional librarian was a self-trained photographer. She is said to have worked as a photographer with Satyajit Ray for three of his films, and later covered important moments of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 through her photography. She died on August 18 in Dhaka.

Charles Allen, the British freelance writer and public historian, who was born in Kanpur, died on August 18. He wrote books on a wide range of subjects connected with India’s colonial past. These included Plain Tales from the Raj, Kipling Sahib - a biography of Rudyard Kipling, Duel in the Snows: the True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa. With his departure goes a rich personal history of Britishers whose parents were also born in India and who made fascinating popular accounts and record of life under the British Raj.

We offer our condolences on the sudden passing away on August 20 of Pakistani Senator Mir Hasil Bizenjo the respected politician and leader of the National Party and earlier an activist in the Baloch Students Organisation in 1980, a fascinating figure of the Pakistani Left who stood firmly for democracy, civilian rule, and peace with India.

August 22, The Editor

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