Gist of The Hindu: October 2015

Gist of The Hindu: October 2015

A pernicious law

The Union government’s contention in the Supreme Court that the provisions in the Indian Penal Code on criminal defamation do not have a chilling effect on free speech will disappoint proponents of fundamental freedoms. The zeal to retain a law that the state can use to stifle criticism is at the heart of the government’s position. It also goes against democratic opinion in many jurisdictions that treats defamation essentially as a civil wrong, and not something to be remedied by the use of the state’s coercive police powers. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, the Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international bodies have called upon states to abolish criminal defamation, recognising that it intimidates citizens and dissuades them from exposing wrongdoing. The grounds cited by the Centre now to justify the continuance of Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC, which deal with defamation and prescribe a maximum jail term of two years, are specious: that in India, citizens are unlikely to have enough liquidity to pay damages for civil defamation; that online defamation in the Internet age can be effectively countered only by making it a criminal offence, and that the law is part of the state’s “compelling interest” to protect the dignity and reputation of citizens. What it fails to see is that the main feature of criminal defamation is its potential for harassment. It is a tool that can be easily invoked and that enables allegedly defamed persons to drag anyone to courts across the country.

Criminal defamation has a pernicious effect on society: for instance, the state uses it as a means to coerce the media and political opponents into adopting self-censorship and unwarranted self-restraint; groups or sections claiming to have been hurt or insulted, abuse the process by initiating multiple proceedings in different places; and, more importantly, the protracted process itself is a punishment. Further, magistrates tend to mechanically summon defendants without first assessing whether the allegedly offending content comes within one of the many exceptions to defamation found in the statute. Criminal defamation should not be allowed to be an instrument in the hands of the state, especially when the Code of Criminal Procedure gives public servants an unfair advantage by allowing the state’s prosecutors to stand in for them when they claim to have been defamed by the media or political opponents. Thanks to past verdicts of the Supreme Court, the government and its organs can no more file civil suits seeking damages for defamation, yet the pernicious law of criminal defamation is invoked to stifle free speech. Even as the court deliberates the matter, the government ought to reconsider its stand and come out against the criminal defamation law.

Manipur’s dilemma

The fear of every state with a predominant indigenous population was summed up thus by the Naga leader A.Z. Phizo: “Nagaland cannot accept the Indian excess population [as] our country is too small.” Many of the recent exclusivist outbursts in the northeastern States, including in Manipur, can be attributed to such a fear of losing ancestral land to “outsiders”. Manipur’s crisis intensified four months ago when its Congress-majority Legislative Assembly passed the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenant and Migrant Workers’ Bill, 2015. It was opposed widely, including by women’s and students’ groups, and even by a section of the ruling party. Eventually the Opposition became more united in demanding the withdrawal of the Bill, which failed to address their key concern of protecting the land rights of the original inhabitants. On July 14, the Bill was withdrawn by the Manipur government in a nod to the protesters’ demands. The united Opposition rather underscored the long-standing demand for the imposition of an Inner Line Permit system, as in a few other northeastern States. The ILP regime, introduced by the British to protect tribal populations from encroachment into their areas, but later used to advance commercial interests, involves a system akin to the issue of visas to Indian citizens to enter a State of the Union.

The dilemma of the Indian state over the ILP is understandable. Can the Union afford to introduce a quasi-visa to its citizens to enter one State from another State? The question could be complex for a central party that advocates the removal of all speed-breakers when it comes to citizens’ access to travel and work in her own country. The dilemma of Manipur is perhaps even more severe. The 2001 Census indicated the size of the migrant community was nearly as much as that of the dominant ethnic Meiteis, thus bolstering the demand from Manipur’s erudite civil society to impose curbs on inward movement. But there has also been out-migration of the indigenous people. The demand is sought to be substantiated by citing many examples that indicate how Manipuris are losing land to “extractive” non-Manipuri industries.

The leasing out of “one-sixth of the total area” of Manipur for oil exploration and drilling to international oil majors, unthinkable in the other States, is one of many such examples. In this backdrop, a half-baked Bill was passed, that exacerbated the insecurity. The demand, though, is more legitimately a consequence of the hill-valley divide in the State and the congestion in the valley rather than any huge influx of outsiders. The situation is thus complex but not out-of-control. But the State should ensure that alien-investor-driven development does not disrobe its people. After all, they are supposed to benefit from the growth generated out of its own domestic resources.

India, and the Taliban’s changing dynamics

The first officially acknowledged dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government took place in Murree, Pakistan, on July 7. Among those attending were representatives of Pakistan, China and the U.S. This comes eight months after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s meeting with Gen. Raheel Sharif and the subsequent assurance that Pakistan would help convince the Taliban to negotiate. The major outcome, according to Pakistani media sources, is that the next round of talks is provisionally planned for August 15 and 16 in Doha, Qatar. Another projected win was the reported “endorsement” by Taliban leader Mullah Omar on the Taliban website. Since Omar hasn’t been seen in public for years now, the authenticity of this approval is suspect. The Murree talks were significant in that they highlighted a shift in the stance of Taliban’s Qatar office, which has now emerged as its official voice. While not formally repudiating the talks, the Qatar office made a convoluted pronouncement indicating that future negotiations needed its imprimatur for any chance of success. This suggests that Murree was a preliminary round of talks about talks, and is borne out by the announcement of the Doha round.

The Taliban is no longer the monolith that it was and many streams have emerged in the movement. None of them are watertight compartments, allowing individuals and factions to flow from one to another. Each has several factions that may or may not have problems with each other. There are problems between the Taliban’s political leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, considered close to the ISI, who favours negotiation, and Abdul Qayum Zakir, Taliban’s military commander and former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who is opposed to any talks. Zakir insists that the Afghan government lacks legitimacy and it was the U.S., the occupying power, which was in control. Zakir’s position has been reinforced after the Afghan government signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S., and he will oppose talks over the presence of foreign troops.

Yet another line of thought is the one that is open to talks, provided it is held on their terms. This means two things: one, they are not comfortable with Pakistan leading the talks and two, they see escalation in violence as a means to get to a vantage point before discussions begin. It is averse to a ceasefire, as that would allow the beleaguered unity government to consolidate its control. This led to the rejection of the Afghan Ulema’s call for a Ramzan ceasefire. A third group is not openly supportive of talks, as this could drive some extreme elements into joining movements like the Daesh, but it also wants some form of normalcy and will not oppose talks.
With pressure mounting on Pakistan, it had thrown its weight behind the latest round of talks in Murree. Given the mounting international criticism that it had misled the Ashraf Ghani government, it had to display its earnestness and influence over the Taliban by mediating talks on its soil.

India has been on the sidelines because of its limited relationship with the Taliban. Though India has never recognised the Taliban, what often goes unnoticed is that there was limited interaction even during the Kandahar hijacking. An Indian delegation was allowed in without visas and the External Affairs Minister entered into talks with representatives of a government it did not recognise. The point person for all of this was Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. However, times are changing. The perception that talks with at least some of the Talibani elements might bring an end to the imbroglio is gaining ground in Afghanistan. This, coupled with the existence of several lines of thought in Taliban, allows India to reconsider its position on Afghanistan. Considering the social capital that India has built in Afghanistan, India might, at an appropriate moment and in consultation with the Afghan government and other stakeholders, consider opening a channel to factions associated with Taliban’s Qatar office. Diplomacy is often about picking the lesser evil to serve the national interest.

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