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The Hindu Notes for 8th January 2019
  • Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 8th January 2019
  • Still nothing to show for

    Imran Khan appears to be banking on the establishment to help him and Pakistan out of its economic crisis

  • In October last year, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a public address stated that Pakistanis should stop worrying, “Ghabrain nahin, hausla rakhain (do not worry, have fortitude).” But after five months of waiting for the government to deliver on its numerous promises, perhaps it is now time to really start worrying.
  • A different mandate

  • In each of the three recent elections in Pakistan, in 2008, 2013 and last year in July, a different political party won and formed the government. The Pakistan Peoples Party in 2008, following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, had two Prime Ministers in its five-year tenure; but with Asif Zardari as President of Pakistan, this five-year tenure is better known as Mr. Zardari’s government. Similarly, after 2013, the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif made a remarkable reappearance in Pakistan’s political scene and became Prime Minister for the third time, only to be debarred and removed from office, and subsequently imprisoned, and was replaced by one of his party members as Prime Minister. The 2013 government, even with Mr. Sharif behind bars, was known as his government. The third transition, or ‘experiment’ as it has been called since last year well before the elections took place, was for Pakistan’s military and judiciary, the so-called ‘establishment’, to work together and ensure an electoral victory for the third political party in as many elections, with Imran Khan winning.
  • The electoral results in 2008 and 2013 were not unexpected. After Benazir Bhutto’s killing, a sympathy wave led to her party winning enough seats to form a coalition government, but with its particularly poor performance in its five-year tenure, Mr. Sharif’s victory was also not unexpected. Despite the incarceration of Mr. Sharif and the multiple cases against him in 2017 and 2018, the general perception was that his party would probably get re-elected, albeit with a smaller majority. Mr. Khan’s victory followed on a multi-month strategy by the establishment to ensure that he would win, with ample evidence suggesting that he was ushered in with much help from behind the scenes. His shell-shocked victory speech a few hours after the elections suggested that even he was taken aback when victory was handed to him.
  • Five months on

  • Five months is a long enough time to be able to assess what a new government has done and the direction it intends to follow. Both the Zardari government of 2008 and the Sharif government in 2013 quickly went into taking numerous decisions soon after being elected. In 2008, with support from the Opposition led by Mr. Sharif, Mr. Zardari and his government worked together to jointly address issues concerning the economy, and to remove the then President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, by initiating a process to have him impeached, leading to his resignation. Differences emerged between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari over issues about an amnesty granted to political leaders and about the reinstatement of members of the judiciary dismissed while General Musharraf was President. Nevertheless, the main purpose apparent from the beginning had been served and was clear from the start, to reclaim popular political space from the military, and to reassert the sovereignty of the law. Mr. Sharif, when he was elected in 2013, from the very first moment, started work on addressing Pakistan’s biggest problem at that time, the electricity crisis which was crippling the economy. After taking several decisions within days of assuming power, he started to put the economy on some track, and agreed to an International Monetary Fund programme.
  • The most noticeable demonstration of Mr. Khan’s government over the last five months has been best reflected in its ineptitude, indecision, bumbling, sanctimoniousness. For the past five months, we have been waiting for some major policy direction, vision, even just a simple decision on what to do next, but nothing so far has emerged. Other than the ‘we will put all the corrupt politicians in jail’ mantra, this government has been lacking in foresight and a sense of purpose. It is not inexperience which is the cause for this. Although Mr. Khan has not held a job for many years — his last paid job was probably as Pakistan’s cricket captain — most of his Ministers and advisers have been in government with one political party or another. In fact, many worked with General Musharraf when he was President. The many claims that Mr. Khan makes about strong leadership seem to be undermined with him in charge of Pakistan’s government.
  • Perhaps the most urgent and pressing problem facing Pakistan today is that of an economy quickly going into a crisis state, largely on account of inaction and uncertainty created by the Finance Minister. Pakistan’s growth rate in the fiscal year ending in June 2018 was 5.8%, the highest in 13 years. For the current fiscal year the expectations are that it will be closer to 3%. Inflation today is the highest in six years, and interest rates have been driven to double-digit levels with the Pakistani rupee depreciating 34% in 12 months. There is a growing balance of payments crisis, with exports stagnant and imports still rising, along with a fiscal deficit of more than 6% of GDP. The stock market has fallen, as have investor confidence and ratings of the economy. Foreign direct investment has fallen drastically since early 2018. The China Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was touted as Pakistan’s ‘Marshall Plan’, seems to have completely gone off the radar for now, as the Chinese rethink their strategy for Pakistan. Knowing all this, Mr. Khan and his finance and economic team have done little to stabilise Pakistan’s economy, to draw a strategy to address these exacerbating problems. Other than begging for loans from the only three friends Pakistan is left with — Saudi Arabia, China and the UAE — there has been an absence of ideas about what to do. The populist promises of the election manifesto of Mr. Khan, of making Pakistan a model welfare state on the lines of the Prophet’s Medina, of providing millions of jobs and houses to Pakistanis, will all come undone unless the economy is first fixed.
  • A controlled democracy

  • The single most prominent feature of Mr. Khan’s five months has been his repeated pronouncements that he and his government are ‘on the same page’ with Pakistan’s military and judiciary. Unlike Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, both fairly astute and experienced politicians, and not having had any government experience, Mr. Khan probably doesn’t realise the consequences of what this means and how being on the same page with dominating and powerful unelected institutions undermines and stifles the agency of elected governments. Rather than having used the short breathing space following his electoral victory by taking some resolute decisions, his inactions may not only reflect his inability to understand how to run a government but might simply be because he expects others on this ‘same page’ to do his bidding. In many ways, with a media that is strangulated, and politicians of the Opposition being hounded in the name of ‘accountability’, Pakistan may be back to its tried and trusted model of controlled democracy.
  • The un-Gandhian cane

    The crossover of symbols that defined Gandhi — from benign to malevolent — is a revealing comment

  • Over the last few years, battles over symbols — for long an Indian pre-occupation — have reached a crescendo and show no signs of abating. Perhaps no historical figure has been mined as thoroughly as M.K. Gandhi (although B.R. Ambedkar today comes a close second). No government would dare dislodge his endorsement of all Indian currency notes, no matter what colour or denomination they come in, even though we know that this would have been the most distasteful of associations for someone like him.
  • We are only too painfully aware that this glut of images of Gandhi, avowed with such passion, frees the Indian people of any obligation to practise Gandhian ways of living, let alone uphold political principles or economic values. Neither a passionate adherence to truth nor an ardent desire for non-violence is the mark of our public life today.
  • But the reduction of the hallowed figure of the Mahatma to a social worker with a broom, from which no more than a pair of spectacles has been distilled, was an achievement like no other of the present government at the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014. The spectacles have assumed a menacing ubiquity, looming large on bus stops and calendars, even as sewer deaths, manual scavenging and a deep-seated aversion to public hygiene (linked no doubt to caste) continue to remind us of what really needs to be fixed for a cleaner, healthier and sustainable India.
  • Experiments with clothing

  • Gandhi himself spent a good part of his busy life experimenting with the symbols — particularly styles of dress — that would enhance his message. His experiments with the national cap pre-occupied him for some years during 1915-1919: from wearing a top hat, a sola topee, a turban, an embroidered Kashmiri cap, he ‘came to the conclusion that the Kashmiri cap was the best. It is light as well as elegant; it is easy to make, it can be folded, which makes it easily portable’ (his words) And he fixed on white khadi for this headgear, which simultaneously promoted handspun, easily showed up dirt, and was one of the most powerful symbols of anti-colonial nationalism. He himself wore it for just two years, but the symbol sent many dedicated nationalist wearers even to prison.
  • We don’t know as much about his cane, his indispensable walking aid by the late 1920s. We do know that the cane (lathi) as weapon, rather than as loveable third limb, has attained unprecedented importance in our national life. It is this crossover of symbols — from benign to malevolent — that artist B.V. Suresh brought to his installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2018. Like so many young Kannadiga men growing up in the 1960s, B.V. Suresh was not impervious to the attractions of the local RSS shakha for the opportunities it gave the young to collectively exercise/play sport. Like so many young Kannadiga men of his generation, the attractions were very short lived.
  • A comment on the new India

  • B.V. Suresh’s installation was no less than a comment on how thoroughly the Indian republic as we know it has been gutted in the last few years. He allowed his alarm — and indeed sorrow — about the new India that is taking shape to be seen and heard in the space of a semi-darkened, large godown space at Aspinwall. The dull, uneven thud of lathis was audible as one approached, but nothing prepared you for the sight of dozens of them pounding the floor on two sides of the room. Two really long bamboos, like scaffolding, shielded a spotlit white Indian national bird: by draping the posts with some diaphanous synthetic material, rather than the more predictable khadi, B.V. Suresh self-consciously averted banality.
  • For this was no celebratory monument but a cry of despair, a warning, as the two videos that flanked the central arrangement — the now dismembered peacock — combined with the audio of a speech to darkly warn: both the taqdeer (fate) and the tasvir (picture) of this nation will be changed. On the wall facing the entrance, cast in a reddish hue, which allowed the decaying brickwork of the godown to show through, was finally an encounter with the man of peace, striding with his own cane. But here too he slowly dissolved as the Rudra Hanuman image loomed menacingly into view, a masculinist, muscular and militaristic (and angry) portrait that many cars have today made popular.
  • B.V. Suresh’s installation included two mechanically rotating sets of brooms and cloths, which swept up dust, and re-distributed, rather than removed, it as a comment on the ambiguous achievements of Swachh Bharat. But it is the invitation to reflect on the travesties of our contemporary world that are startling and touching. B.V. Suresh himself said that he did not intend the installation to be overtly political, but one could not think of a more apt instance of fearless speech, a comment by one of the multitudes who today feel increasingly suffocated as writers, artists, teachers, ordinary citizens all, crouching in fear of ‘the people’s’ wrath.
  • So it was appropriate that the installation was called ‘Canes of Wrath’: ‘Jiski lathi, uski bhains’ — at no earlier time in our independent nation’s life did one feel so acutely the bestial power of the lathi, unrestrained in its authority when wielded as a ‘people’s weapon’ especially against the most defenceless, At no earlier time has Gandhi been rendered so irrelevant as now; would his heirs in the Congress party dare to praise, as Gandhi did in 1915, that first devout Hindu and Indian nationalist, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who declared, “Please publish it abroad that I am not a Hindu” when he was requested to push an overtly Hindu political agenda?
  • We have a lot to thank B.V. Suresh for, but especially for sharing this deeply contemplative perspective on our present, and the portentous and dystopic mood of the hour.
  • The wizards in Oz

    Pujara, Pant and a spirited bowling attack cast a fine spell over Australia

  • Dark clouds hung over the Sydney Cricket Ground on Monday, holding off India’s bid to win the Test series against Australia in greater style. Yet, the final 2-1 result is historic, with India for the first time defeating Australia in Australia in a Test series. Having flourished at Adelaide and Melbourne, the two victories split by the solitary loss at Perth, Virat Kohli’s men were in good spirits when they reached Sydney. Their soaring confidence found validation through a first innings total of 622 for seven (declared), a challenge to Australia that built upon Cheteshwar Pujara’s 193 and Rishabh Pant’s unbeaten 159. Australia scored 300 and suffered the ignominy of following on before bad light and wet weather rescued the hosts. But India had done enough to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The triumph is doubly delicious as it was seized within Australia, an achievement that eluded previous Indian squads. Since its maiden Test at Lord’s in 1932, India gained strength as a powerhouse at home but remained diffident overseas. England, West Indies and Pakistan were humbled on their home turf but Australia, until now, never wilted. It remained unconquerable, unleashing fiery fast bowlers and marauding batsmen. Lala Amarnath’s men were the first to tour Australia for the 1947-48 series and they returned after losing 0-4. Later Indian teams were either defeated or ended up forcing a stalemate.
  • When Kohli’s men set foot Down Under, there was the weight of past losses to contend with, besides a need to prove that their No. 1 Test ranking could stand scrutiny when they travelled beyond the subcontinent. It didn’t help that an enfeebled Australia, following the ball-tampering crisis of 2018, was expected to collapse. The expectation this time around was direct and strident: India had to win. Kohli’s men did that gloriously against Tim Paine’s men, who fought for large stretches before discarding their spirit towards the business end. It wasn’t easy and India did have its headaches. Midway, it had to jettison the malfunctioning opening pair of Murali Vijay and K.L. Rahul. Lead spinner R. Ashwin, after choking the Aussies at Adelaide, picked up a side-strain, and the ambiguity over his fitness level before the concluding Test triggered some conspiracy theories. The squad missed two regulars, who were tending to injuries: wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha and opener Prithvi Shaw. Still, India found the right men for different occasions. Kohli scored a ton, Pujara did even better, delivering three centuries, amassing 521 and averaging 74.43. The fast bowling unit was incisive and Jasprit Bumrah sizzled with 21 wickets. Pant caught well and provided valuable runs lower down the order. The latest achievement in Australia has to be savoured. Now South Africa remains the “final frontier”, as it were — India is yet to win a Test series there.
  • Death traps

    The Meghalaya government must urgently ensure that all illegal mines are shut down

  • The tardy response of the Centre and the State of Meghalaya to the plight of at least 15 workers trapped in a rat-hole coal mine since mid-December has exposed the extraordinary indifference in government to labour welfare and the law. Two workers have been found dead in a second mine in the East Jaintia Hills district. The primary responsibility for the operation of illegal mines lies with the State government, and it should be called to account for ignoring the directions of the National Green Tribunal to close them and levy punitive royalties on those that extracted the coal. Several appeals are before the Supreme Court in connection with a ban ordered by the Tribunal on rat-hole mining and the transport of already mined coal. It should be possible at least now to put an end to it. The Meghalaya government has been evasive on the issue of the continued operation of the illegal mines, in spite of the adverse findings of the Justice B.P. Katoki committee appointed by the NGT. It avoided taking action even after a similar mine-flooding accident that claimed 15 lives in 2012 in South Garo Hills, and the subsequent ban. Although the NGT has ordered the State to deposit ₹100 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board for environmental restoration in the wake of the recent disaster at Ksan in East Jaintia Hills, the first-order priority is to close the rat-hole mines. It is the responsibility of the Centre and the State to rehabilitate the workers from impoverished communities, reportedly including some child labourers, who are ready to undertake the risky labour because of the higher-than-average wages paid. This should not be difficult, considering that the value of extracted coal stored in Meghalaya was officially estimated at over ₹3,078 crore four years ago, and mineral resources should be treated as state property.
  • The scale is high: as interpreted from satellite images and reported by the Katoki panel, it could be of the order of 24,000 mines, many of them illegal. If illegal mines continue to operate in flagrant violation of rules under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the responsibility lies with the State government. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has said a ban on coal mining is not the solution, given the economic conditions in the region. Yet, the State government has done little to implement reforms and diversify employment away from dirty mining under primitive conditions over the years, in spite of judicial orders. In fact, authorities in Shillong continue to ignore such directions, as the accident at the Lumthari mine in East Jaintia Hills shows. As recently as in December, Parliament was informed that 22 States had constituted a task force to review illegal mining and act on it, but Meghalaya does not figure in that list. A clean-up is overdue.
  • Jaitapur: A risky and expensive project

    Unless the government is transparent about details, it will be engulfed in yet another controversy

  • In December, the French company Électricité de France (EDF) submitted a “techno-commercial proposal” to the Indian government for the Jaitapur nuclear power project in Maharashtra. The idea of importing six nuclear European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) was initiated by the United Progressive Alliance government more than a decade ago, but the project had made little progress due to concerns about the economics and safety of the EPRs, local opposition, and the collapse of the initial French corporate partner, Areva. Despite these problems, in the past few months, the Modi government has taken several high-level steps towards actuating the project.
  • In March 2018, EDF and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) signed an “industrial way forward” agreement in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron. Last month, after meeting the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj announced that “both countries are working to start the Jaitapur project as soon as possible”. The urgency is inexplicable as it comes before the techno-commercial offer has been examined and as earlier questions about costs and safety remain unanswered. Moreover, with the Indian power sector facing surplus capacity and a crisis of non-performing assets (NPAs), a large investment in the Jaitapur project is particularly risky.
  • Delays and cost increases

  • It is clear that electricity from the Jaitapur project will be more expensive than many other sources of electricity, including solar and wind power. Using international estimates of capital costs for EPRs from the 2010-2012 period, and after adjusting for cost savings in India, we had shown in 2013 that first year tariffs from the project would be around ₹15 per kilowatt-hour (“Repeating Enron in Jaitapur”, June 21, The Hindu). Even this figure must be revised upwards to account for the construction experience with EPRs over the past five years. Across the world, EPRs have experienced delays and cost increases. The first EPR entered commercial operation in December 2018 at the Taishan site in China, five years later than originally projected. Its final capital cost was estimated by industry sources to be “40% over the original estimate”. The story in Europe is more dramatic. The EPR at Flamanville in France, for example, went from an expected start date of 2012 to 2020, and a cost estimate of €3.3 billion to €10.9 billion. Two EPRs have been planned at Hinkley Point in the U.K. Even before construction began, the estimated cost has risen significantly to £20 billion (about ₹1.75 lakh crore). The British National Audit Office assessed that the project “locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits.”
  • While nuclear costs have been rising, other low-carbon sources of electricity, especially solar energy, have become cheaper. In 2010-11, tariffs for solar photovoltaic (PV) projects under the National Solar Mission were between ₹10.95 and ₹12.76 per unit. But several projects approved under Phase II of the mission have been connected to the grid in the last year with tariffs below ₹5 per unit. In recent auctions for solar PV projects, winning tariff bids in the range of ₹2 to ₹2.50 per unit have become routine.
  • The high capital costs of the EPRs are of particular concern because power-generating capacity in India has grown faster than demand causing projects to run into financial difficulties. In March 2018, the parliamentary standing committee on energy listed 34 “stressed” projects, including NPAs and “those which have the potential to become NPAs”, with a cumulative outstanding debt of ₹1.74 lakh crore. In this context, the government seems to be throwing caution to the winds by investing lakhs of crores in the Jaitapur project. Because the NPCIL’s debts would ultimately be underwritten by the Indian government, if the project encounters financial difficulties, the costs would fall on Indian taxpayers.
  • Safety problems

  • In addition to the high costs, safety problems with the reactor design and construction have emerged in several EPRs. The most serious of these pertained to the pressure vessel, which is the key barrier that prevents the spread of radioactive materials from the reactor. In April 2015, the French nuclear safety regulator, Autorité Sûreté Nucléaire, announced that some sections of the pressure vessel that the French Creusot Forge had supplied to the Flamanville and Taishan reactors had too much carbon in the steel. The Flamanville project was also found to have substandard welding in the reactor’s pipes. The EPR at Olkiluoto in Finland encountered problems with vibrations in the pipe that connects the primary coolant system with the pressuriser, which maintains the pressure of the water circulating in the reactor.
  • These safety concerns are exacerbated by India’s flawed nuclear liability law. If and when completed, Jaitapur “will be the largest nuclear power plant in the world”. In the event of an accident, the nuclear liability law would require the public sector NPCIL to compensate victims and pay for clean-up, while largely absolving EDF of responsibility.
  • The Indian law provides NPCIL with a limited opportunity to obtain compensation from EDF for the “supply of equipment... with... defects... or sub-standard services”. But the joint statement issued in March 2018 promises that the “enforcement of India’s rules” would be in accordance with the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for nuclear damage, which severely limits the operator’s right of recourse. This raises the disturbing possibility that the NPCIL may have promised not to exercise its right to claim compensation from EDF as allowed by Indian law. In any event, there is a “moral hazard” here: since EDF can escape with limited or no consequences even after a severe accident, it has little material incentive to maintain the highest safety standards, particularly if the requirements of safety come into conflict with the imperative to lower costs. Such pressures might be accentuated by EDF’s poor financial state.
  • The Modi-Macron statement “emphasized the need for the project to generate cost-effective electricity”. It is hard to see how this is possible. To begin with, the government must answer several specific questions: how much will the entire project cost, who will be accountable for cost increases and delays, and what is the precise arrangement that the government has reached with France on liability? Unless it is transparent about these details, the Modi government may well find itself engulfed in yet another controversy involving overpriced French equipment.
  • A different outreach

    The Modi government’s over-reliance on religion for diplomatic engagements is problematic

  • Chief of the Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s argument that Pakistan must “develop as a secular state” to have any dialogue with India can be interpreted to convey two contradictory messages. The first is that India has no intention of engaging with Pakistan since there is no possibility of Pakistan being converted into a secular country in the foreseeable future. The second is that the Modi government’s ‘faith diplomacy’ has obvious limitations, and may prove costly for India’s national interests in the longer run. That diplomacy rooted in religion can be a double-edged sword became evident when the narrative of Pakistan’s “googly” forcing the Modi government’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor gained widespread currency.
  • Marketing brand India

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enthusiastically used the religious dimension of India’s soft power in order to market brand India. Yoga and Ayurveda cannot be strongly associated with religion; however, Hinduism and Buddhism are being used to promote India’s interests in the neighbourhood as well as to reconstitute the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Mr. Modi has often made visits to Hindu and Buddhist shrines in the neighbourhood, apparently to counter China’s promotion of Buddhism. India hosted Sri Lankan military personnel and their families in Bodh Gaya last year. This was projected as an innovative way of wooing Sri Lanka back into India’s geopolitical orbit. Serious attempts are also being made to encourage Nepal to reciprocate India’s attempts to forge Hindu-based civilisational bonds with the country. U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited Janakpur in Nepal in December on the occasion of Vivah Panchami. Being an advocate of restoration of Nepal’s monarchy and Hindu status, Mr. Adityanath’s visit put a question mark on the usefulness of such gestures in creating an atmosphere of goodwill between the two countries.
  • Pakistan has been a master manipulator of religion to achieve its goals. If the Modi government believed that the success of the Kartarpur corridor project would allow it the elbow room to expand Sikh diplomacy to other holy sites, it was mistaken. The Pakistani establishment took advantage of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan in August for Imran Khan’s swearing-in. Pakistan’s Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa suggested to Mr. Sidhu that the Kartarpur corridor should be opened to mark Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. Since no diplomatic communication took place between the two countries regarding the project, the Modi government announced plans to develop the corridor till the border, and asked the Imran Khan government to follow suit. Pakistan was waiting for this moment. Soon, Islamabad declared that Mr. Khan would have a groundbreaking ceremony for this purpose on November 28. Hastily, India laid the foundation stone on the Indian side on November 26, which ironically marked the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists.
  • The proponents of Hindutva ideology believe that India’s identity is made up of Hinduism and other religious faiths which originated from Indian soil, such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Since the Modi government has given primacy to Hinduism and Buddhism for diplomatic outreach, quietly ignoring the rich Indian legacy of Sufi Islam, it could not afford to be seen denying India’s Sikh community an opportunity to visit the Kartarpur shrine when Pakistan seemed willing to roll out a red carpet for them.
  • The impression Pakistan created

  • Given India’s continued refusal to engage with Pakistan, it would have been a huge loss of face had External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan. However, since it was not possible for India to be unrepresented in an event with so much symbolic value, two Union Ministers were sent to attend the ceremony. Is it not laughable that Mr. Sidhu was termed an anti-national when two Union Ministers represented the Modi government?
  • India made it clear that the opening of the corridor can’t be the basis of a thaw between the two countries. However, Pakistan seems to have created an impression of generosity towards all Sikhs living in India, as well as projected itself as a champion of reconciliation. The Modi government seems to have become a victim of its own over-reliance on religion for diplomatic engagements.
  • There have been concerns that the government has been undermining India’s secular foundations. It is time to ask whether the government’s eagerness in tapping India’s ‘original’ religions as diplomatic resource has promoted India’s interests or restrained its actions.
  • Beyond the lens in Jantar Mantar

    Conversations with street vendors and children on the sidelines of protests

  • As a journalist in Delhi, I have spent at least a couple of days every month at Jantar Mantar, the premier protest venue since the early 1990s. On some days mega rallies take place under the gaze of dozens of cameras. But even after the crowds have left, the space is dotted with small groups of people who simply want to be heard.
  • I spent one late summer afternoon exploring some of the more esoteric groups, bored with the long-winded speeches of the rally I had been assigned to cover. After a few minutes each at protests by railway coolie workers, PDS traders, and self-described anarchists, I stopped by a group of women gathered around a portrait of a young girl.
  • The girl was a high-schooler from a Gujarati community in northern Delhi, and had been harassed by a man for several months. Days before her final school exams, she fell to her death. Local police ruled it an accident. Her neighbours were there to demand a thorough investigation, suspecting that she had either been pushed or killed herself. There were too few facts to write a news report. In any case, the women seemed more interested in telling me about the girl’s life than her death. I may have forgotten every aspect of the rally I was there to cover, but I will never forget that the girl’s favourite sweets were jalebis, that she loved to dance the dandiya, and that her family wanted her to become a teacher.
  • While protesters may come and go, there are some constant faces at Jantar Mantar. In my early days in the city, a veteran reporter told me how to bypass the crowds at large rallies, the place to stand for the best view of both the crowd and the stage, and which vendors on the side streets served unhygienic food. Those vendors are also a good source for an informal estimate of crowd size in comparison to previous protests.
  • During one rally for higher pensions, I chatted with Lal Poddar, who works in a small shop closest to the stage. He had seen hundreds of protests, but this one struck close to home. After 24 years in the shop, he wanted to return home in Bihar, but did not want to be a burden to his relatives. With a pension of ₹3,000 per month, as the protesters were demanding, he could stay an independent man.
  • There are also tiny entrepreneurs at Jantar Mantar, street children who weave through the crowds selling pens, flowers or colouring books. Some ask for a meal. Once you’ve covered a few protests, you learn to recognise the regulars. At a recent protest against the deaths of sanitation workers while cleaning septic tanks and sewers, a young artist had brought coloured chalks to draw slogans and stylised manholes using the road as his canvas. A journalist had brought her seven-year-old daughter to the protest, and the artist let her use the chalks to draw animals and flowers in a corner. Soon, some street kids joined, begging for a turn.
  • I watched a 10-year-old girl I had chatted with several times, the daughter of a single mother who works in the construction sector. She kept aside her stock of cheap ballpens, and squatted on the ground across from the journalist’s daughter, trading colours and ideas. For a few minutes, it didn’t matter that they came from different worlds. For a few minutes, we celebrated childhood on the street outside Jantar Mantar.
  • Border separations

    Steps that the Trump administration could consider to mitigate the problem

    celebrated childhood on the street outside Jantar Mantar.
  • Starting around late 2017 and accelerating through 2018, the process of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border resulted in an angry public backlash against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” approach to dealing with undocumented migrants. The President then ostensibly backed down on this policy, as a sense of dismay mounted over disturbing images and videos of screaming toddlers in the custody of Customs and Border Protection personnel, and of chain-link cages filled with children. But it now appears that the federal government has quietly resumed family separations, in many cases using “vague or unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing or minor violations against the parents… as justification.”
  • During the first phase of family separations, between October 2017 and May 2018, reports suggest that more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents. Now, based on information reported to members of Congress and subsequently reported in the media, it seems that 12,800 children were held in federally contracted shelters in September 2018. Updates to that figure in mid-December put the number at 15,000. The sheer numbers are not the entire story, however. Disturbing accounts have also surfaced of immigration officials arrested for the sexual abuse of children in their care, even though the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention centres have denied responsibility for these violations.
  • Then matters took a turn for the worse. First, political pressure on the Trump administration soared after a caravan of more than 7,000 migrants from Central America made its way through Mexico and reached the U.S. border, only to be tear-gassed by law enforcement. Images of families with children fleeing caused outrage across the world. Second, Republicans lost the House of Representatives to Democrats in the midterm elections, leading to more tension on Capitol Hill over border policy, especially Mr. Trump’s proposal for the border wall. Third, and most tragic, two children, Jakelin Caal Maquin (7) and Felipe Gomez Alonzo (8), died in the custody of immigration officials in December leading to bitter recrimination on all sides. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen suggested that the families of the children were to blame for undertaking such an arduous crossing, while the families and human rights group alleged lack of custodial care for the children.
  • A potential way out of this politically tenuous, arguably inhumane border crackdown would be for the Trump administration to consider adopting the policy of “catch and release” — where migrant families would be released from custody pending their deportation case adjudication. Otherwise under a decree known as the Flores settlement, migrant children may not be held with their parents in immigration detention for more than 20 days, usually insufficient time for a ruling in the case.