Gist of The Hindu: March 2014

Gist of The Hindu: March 2014

A lost opportunity

There are occasions when the finality of a judicial verdict is in unfortunate conflict with the interests of justice. The contentious case of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is one such. By declining to review its retrograde decision to uphold the validity of Section 377, the Supreme Court has lost an opportunity to revisit a verdict that has drawn widespread criticism for failing to extend constitutional protection to sexual minorities. While it is true that the scope for review is limited, there was some hope for the LGBT community when the Union government came forward to seek a review of the December 2013 verdict in Suresh Kumar Koushal . Many jurists, activists and political leaders felt the ruling overturned a well-reasoned judgment of the Delhi High Court, which had read down Section 377 to de-criminalise consensual sex among adults irrespective of gender. It was seen as incongruous with the mores of our times. The verdict required a review on merits because of some intriguing conclusions. The Bench had ruled that “those indulging in carnal intercourse against the order of nature” constituted a different class, and that Parliament could treat the category differently from others. It had failed to see that ‘order of nature’ is itself an artificial construct rooted in the outdated view that alternative sexuality is unnatural. It had dismissed the LGBT community as a minuscule fraction of the population, as though the relative smallness of a group disentitled it to constitutional protection.

While holding that Section 377 suffered from no infirmity, the Bench had said it was open to the legislature to delete or amend it. The verdict had cast a shadow of doubt on the judiciary’s decisiveness in enforcing fundamental rights. In a recent case concerning death row convicts and mercy petitions, it was reaffirmed that the Supreme Court was best equipped to adjudicate the content of fundamental rights. “This Court has always granted relief for violation of fundamental rights and has never remanded the matter,” it said. The Bench that declined to review the verdict could have taken inspiration from these words and examined afresh the section’s chilling effect on fundamental rights, instead of leaving it to the legislature. A curative petition could provide one more avenue of redress, but its scope is limited to judgments passed in violation of principles of natural justice or in circumstances suggesting bias on the part of the court. The situation is ripe for a legislative solution, but the process may not be easy, for not all members and parties will be able to resist the influence of religious conservative groups that are likely to oppose any amendment.

Tensions in Ukraine

The unrest in Ukraine, which recently flared into violence, is dividing the country and intensifying long-standing tensions between Russia and the West. Public protests started in December 2013 over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a deal with the European Union in favour of aid and natural gas agreements with Russia. The protesters, who for weeks were peaceful and even returned equipment to the police after water cannon was used to disperse crowds in the capital, Kiev, have seized government offices across the country, including the Justice Ministry. Their demands include an end to corruption and self-enrichment by the ruling political elite, and at least four people have died as security forces opened fire. Mr. Yanukovych has softened his position by putting an amnesty for protesters through Parliament and by offering the prime ministership and deputy prime ministership to the respective opposition leaders, Arseny Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko. But the opposition parties are furious that the amnesty requires the protesters to vacate the occupied buildings, and the offer of political posts has been rejected.

Mr. Yanukovych has now taken a time-out by going on “sick leave,” but his cosmetic measures are bound to fail because Ukraine is a prize in a geostrategic tussle between Russia and the West. To start with, the President’s policies since his election in 2010 have troubled a substantial section of Ukraine’s 46 million people, especially those in the western regions, who support accession to the EU. Eastern Ukrainians, however, prefer closer links with Russia. Secondly, the EU deal was tied to an IMF bailout that would require public-spending cuts and higher gas prices. Thirdly, NATO and Ukraine have held joint exercises, which they have progressively enlarged, though Parliament cancelled the 2009 manoeuvres. The EU association agreement proposes deeper Ukraine-NATO links, though only 30 per cent of Ukrainians favour NATO membership; such proposals fuel support for aggressively ethno-nationalist far-right coalitions such as Prawy Sektor (Right Sector). Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has blocked the Kiev-EU agreement with €15 billion in aid, cheaper gas supplies, and trade deals. While Moscow sees NATO as trying to encircle Russia, the Atlantic alliance has repeatedly tried to invent new roles for itself since the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation collapsed in 1991, and both NATO and the IMF have in effect tried to hijack the EU’s relations with Ukraine; neither Ukrainians nor the EU must allow themselves to be traduced thus, and Ukraine’s future direction must be decided solely by Ukrainians.

New scourge in Assam

Northeastern India has seen a pattern for long: when one terror outfit is neutralised, another pops up in hydra-head fashion. The most recent such organisation is the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Boroland. On the ascendant in terms of strike potential, it has gone on a killing spree in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts in Lower Assam over the past few weeks. In one recent series of attacks, eight persons were killed, including Muslims and Hindi-speaking Bengalis. While the NDFB (S) has come out with statements accusing the security forces of targeting Bodo civilians, its plan is clearly to drive a wedge between Bodos and non-Bodos. The turmoil that engulfed Lower Assam in July 2012 that claimed 96 lives and left lakhs of Muslims and Bodos traumatised and displaced, is fresh in memory. While the Ranjan Daimary faction of the NDFB signed a ceasefire agreement with the Central and the State governments in November 2013, the faction led by I.K. Songbijit refused to join the process. Songbijit, who was the Daimary’s faction’s ‘commander-in-chief’, broke away in late-2012. Remaining in Myanmar, he is now believed to be in league with Paresh Baruah of the ULFA (I), and S.S. Khaplang, chief of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K). The prospect of the three teaming up with the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation, poses a new challenge.

As the movement demanding a homeland for the Bodo people runs its course through its second decade, it remains one of the most serious potential sources of violent political confrontation in the region. Even admitting that the Bodo cause stems from the perception of their not being a part of the composite indigenous population of Assam, extortions, kidnapping and other atrocities have over time undermined any legitimacy the movement could claim. The State government has made clear its resolve to clamp down on violence, and the Assam Police have declared 15 leaders of the NDFB (S), including Songbijit himself, as “most wanted”, even putting a price of Rs. 95 lakh on them. Considering that the outfit is estimated to have less than 250 cadres, firm enough action does not appear to be a tall order. Inter-State intelligence cooperation will be key. At a point when sustained and aggressive action by the government, with some help from across the border in Bangladesh, has substantially broken the back of militancy at large in northeastern India, the latest threat should be met with a firm hand. Meanwhile, the process of peace involving the two other dominant Bodo groups, led respectively by Dhiren Boro and Ranjan Daimary, should be handled with fairness and magnanimity.

A surprise from the RBI

In its third quarter review of monetary policy, the Reserve Bank of India sprang a big surprise by hiking the policy repo rate by 0.25 percentage points to 8 per cent. All other rates — the bank rate, the reverse repo and the marginal standing facility rates — stand adjusted upwards. Unprepared as the financial markets might have been to the hike, the central bank’s justification is unassailable. In the mid-quarter review on December 18, 2013, the rates were kept unaltered, anticipating a cool-off in vegetable prices. With the subsequent fall in food prices, especially of vegetables, headline inflation has fallen significantly and might stay subdued well into the next round of data compilation. However, excluding food and fuel prices, CPI inflation has remained stubbornly high while core WPI inflation has risen, although only marginally. As RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan said subsequently, behind its logic has been the CPI inflation which remains close to 10 per cent and is the prime cause for the hardening inflation expectations among consumers. Besides, there is evidence to show that notwithstanding the tight monetary policy, aggregate demand pressures are still exerting upward pressure on overall inflation. A rate hike is justified, though the growth momentum is weak and there has been much fiscal tightening in the last quarter of this year.

The other important development has been the release of the Urjit Patel committee’s report which has suggested that price stability should be the primary objective of monetary policy and towards that end CPI inflation should be brought below 8 per cent by January 2015 and below 6 per cent by the following year. Formal inflation targeting has not been adopted yet, but clearly the central bank’s increased reliance on the CPI is evident in its hiking the repo rate to firmly nudge the economy towards the recommended path of price stability. The Governor has emphasised that in the long run there is no conflict between its two traditional objectives of supporting growth and maintaining price stability. Unless inflation is brought down there cannot be a revival in either consumption or investment. Further policy steps will be data dependent but if the disinflationary process evolves as projected, any more tightening in the near term is not anticipated. The economy will grow at slightly below 5 per cent this year, but can firm up to 5.5 per cent in a range of 5 to 6 per cent in 2014-15. A pick-up in investment and stronger export performance might push up growth rates further. The external situation remains uncertain — global economic growth has been uneven and emerging economies have been under pressure in recent months.

Anarchist or activist?

If a Chief Minister is anarchist because he took to the streets, how then would we label the late French President François Mitterrand? After all, in 1983 he gave a hero’s welcome in the Élysée Palace, no less, to anti-racist protesters who were angry with his own government. In fact, in 1980, as leader of the Socialist Party, he joined a widely popularised street march against attacks on Jewish people, along with Pierre Chevènement and Michel Rocard. Were they all anarchists? Or think of Bertrand Russell and his activism against nuclear bombs. Another anarchist or a well-meaning democrat?

Clearly one person’s anarchist could well be another person’s activist. Go back a little in time and consider the demonstrations that brought in universal franchise or racial equality or the establishment of gay rights. Had these movements been banned, or dubbed as anarchist, our democracies would have been that much poorer. It is with the help of these protests that democracy grew and grew to give us this splendid shade under which most of us sit. It took decades of activism before women got the right to vote and before Blacks became legally equal to the rest in America; but who is complaining today?

When streets erupt in a democracy it is nearly always because institutions are not delivering as they had promised to. It is never a good idea to barricade popular voices by institutional walls. Is this why our President in his latest speech on the eve of Republic Day warned politicians not to make false promises for that would generate both heat and noise? Was he lamenting both the United Progressive Alliance’s performance as much as cautioning politicians about their immediate future?

Disdain for democratic procedure

It is not as if democracies have never been challenged by genuine anarchism in the past, nor is it that they can easily protect themselves from such assaults in the future. The ones who stormed the Babri Masjid were anarchists, and so are the Maoists and religious/ethnic activists of today. What unites them all is their disdain for democratic procedure whose hallmark is non-violence. Anarchism, be warned, is not just about physical violence; it is as much about verbal violence as well. People tend to forget this, but that is how Gandhiji understood non-violence; it had to be both in word and in deed.

Gandhiji argued, as did Bertrand Russell, and scores of other believers of liberal democracy, that the moment voices are raised it is clear that violence has struck. Anger reveals a weak hand, for if the argument is a winning one, why be abusive? Supporters of the AAP demonstrated this spirit through the 2013 election in Delhi. Since then, it has compromised and condoned, at least, verbal instances of anarchy. Mr. Somnath Bharti, Delhi’s Law Minister, may be in over his head with his new assignment, but that does not excuse his disgraceful choice of language. He has not just let the side down repeatedly, but has also given credence to the charge that the AAP borders on anarchism. Perhaps Mr. Kejriwal should hold a night school in good manners for his band.

Neither street demonstrations nor working from a makeshift office under a tent amounts to anarchism. It is violence, both physical and verbal, that invites anarchy more than anything else, whether or not such acts happen inthe killing fields or in parliaments. Remember also, some of the most ruthless leaders in modern times were elected to power. This is why liberal democracy is not just about votes, but more about non-violence. If there is a striking family resemblance between anarchists and dictators it is because violence was mother’s milk for both of them.

A little anarchy is a dangerous thing, but a good protest is a joy forever!

A strengthening relationship

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, and the clutch of agreements signed between the two countries during the 36 hours he spent in the country, add more cement to a relationship that has been growing steadily since 2005 and is valued by both sides. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, there are no two opinions in India on the importance of building ties with Japan; the country is at the heart of New Delhi’s Look East Policy. The strategic component of the relationship has increased dramatically over the last four years. Besides an annual summit, an institutionalised multi-layered strategic dialogue at several levels — between the Defence Ministers, a “two plus two” among the Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries of both sides, one on maritime security, and a trilateral between India, U.S. and Japan — has kept up the momentum. In addition, as announced significantly during Mr. Abe’s visit, the head of Japan’s recently set up National Security Council and India’s National Security Adviser are to hold regular consultations. The Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), as the country’s navy is called, held a joint maritime exercise off Chennai in December 2013. According to the joint statement issued after talks between Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, both “reaffirmed the importance of such exercises, and renewed their resolution to continue to conduct them on a regular basis with increased frequency.” India is also in negotiations with Japan to buy its amphibious aircraft, Utility Seaplane-2, used by the Japanese Navy. Even as both sides deepen their strategic partnership, they should be clear that their shared wariness of China cannot be the basis for healthy ties.

Indeed, Mr. Abe’s arrival in India along with a huge business delegation was a reminder that there is a significant economic dimension to the relationship, even though this is its underperforming side. Japan-India bilateral trade, which was $18.61 billion in 2012-13, is only around 1 per cent of Japan’s total foreign trade, while it is about 2.2 to 2.5 per cent of India’s total foreign trade, despite a comprehensive free trade agreement, implemented in 2011. Tokyo has generously helped fund India’s infrastructure development, including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and is also interested in a similar project in the Chennai-Bangalore belt. Discussions on a civilian nuclear deal continue, despite opposition to nuclear energy within Japan, and in particular to a deal with a country that is a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty holdout. An agreement, if and when it comes through, will be the icing on the cake of India-Japan ties.

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