Bruce Schneier, in his book Data and Goliath, talks about the “hidden battles to collect your data and to control your world”. In 2015, this notion did not seem so sinister. The nightmare unfolded so slowly that the world missed the horror since. Various kinds of data are used for corporate and government surveillance around the world. This includes location, identity, transaction, activity and communication details. Sources of these data points include desktop computers, email accounts, social media platforms, networks and now the most potent source are our mobile devices.
While most apps initially originated in the US-Europe region, they inherently complied to applicable privacy and security regulations prevalent locally. This, however, changed when apps from regions and countries, with entirely different legal environments, came up. Take for instance, WeChat, which functions differently for a Chinese and its foreign subscribers. It is fully compliant to real-time censorship of the Chinese state which is implemented by the Great Fire Wall (GFW). The Internet has no boundaries, de facto and de jure, hence hundreds of millions of Indians today are subscribers of apps made in the US and China. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has proved beyond doubt that subscriber data can be put to use for sinister purposes, including regime change. Little bits and bytes of data leak information about individuals but if this is aggregated, it can have severe national security implications.
A closer look at the data collected by mobile phone apps would give us a glimpse into the possible threats from a geopolitical perspective. The apps on your cell phone collect data about:
1. Who you are: Which includes biometrics like fingerprints and retina, a person’s physical characteristics and other personally identifiable information.
2. What you do: Your activities like travel and GPS location, a person’s behaviour and movement patterns.
3. What you have: This includes documents and numbers such as a national identity number, passport, bank account numbers, etc.
4. What you know: Entailing information known only to the beholder personally, like personal identification number (PIN), usernames and access tokens.
Recently when governments across the world started to utilise contact tracing for prospective identification of Covid-19 exposure, serious concerns regarding privacy were raised. It is high time that similar questions were asked about hundreds of other apps used by a very large percentage of the Indian population. These questions include, legal and regulatory issues surrounding collection, processing, retention and use of the personal data processed by these apps.
While apps arising out of Europe have to be compliant with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the US tech ecosystem is also democratically regulated (you can go to a court). Data protection principles in totalitarian states like China are highly questionable. Thus, regarding Chinese apps there is no transparency and information about the data subjects’ rights, one knows nothing about principles of consent and other legitimate grounds for the processing of personal data. Similarly, data transfers and processing by third parties is also opaque. This leaves an Indian citizen very vulnerable to exploitation by a totalitarian non-democratic state, which puts surveillance on — and censors — its citizens 24×7.
Looking at the proliferation of the Chinese apps, a single app TikTok has been downloaded by 467 million users in India and boasts of a user base of about 120 million. It was downloaded by 277.6 million users in India in the first 11 months of 2019 alone. Another Helo app is now used by 40,000,000 Indian users. UC Browser, which has been repeatedly flagged for serious data privacy violations, is used by more than 430 million users worldwide, has over 130 million Indian users. The list is endless, and literally hundreds of terabytes of sensitive data is flowing to these Chinese firms on a daily basis.
In a totalitarian state, the lines between government and business interests are opaque. Giants like Apple can resist the US government (supposedly) and decline to share data on the grounds of individual privacy, but the record of Chinese corporations in compliance to data requests by their state is unclear.
The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), as per Section 69 of Information Technology Act (IT Act) is empowered to block public access to any online information under specified circumstances like sovereignty and integrity, defense and security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above.
The procedure for blocking of websites/URLs is laid down in Information Technology (procedure and safeguards for blocking for access information for public) Rule, 2009. The said blocking by Meity is done in compliance of the court order or on the recommendation of a ministerial committee as specified in the rules. The said rules also make it mandatory for such blocking requests to be given through the nodal officer of such government department.
Blocking such apps during emergency situations are difficult as they work through multiple IP addresses and on different protocols, and hence there is a need for a reasonably good solution to protect national security.
In the area of mobile apps and privacy there is still a serious gap between legal requirements and the translation of these requirements into practical solutions. The requirement of incorporating maximum possible information principles for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information such as accountability, identifying purposes, consent (wherever possible), limiting collection, limiting use, disclosure, and retention, accuracy, safeguards, openness; individual access and challenging compliance does exist.
Existing recommendations to app developers usually provide insights only into what the developers are required to do, without further guidance on how they will be able to fulfil these requirements. It is the requirement of the day that the guidelines by the state should be issued providing recommendations to app developers that shed more light on how privacy requirements can be fulfilled in practice.
Moreover, the understanding of how the apps practically operate is often complex, due to their dynamic environment, reuse of software libraries and interconnection with different networks and systems, thus making it even more difficult to assess their privacy and security characteristics. Although few app developers might maliciously oversee data protection obligations, in many cases poor data protection and security practices are due to lack of awareness, knowledge or understanding (from app developers) on how to practically organise for and engineer privacy and security requirements into their tools.
From a privacy perspective it has to be noted that the knowledge level of a users’ choice of an app could constitute personal data or even sensitive personal data.
Censorship & surveillance
The possibly malicious apps are originating from China, Russia, Pakistan, among others; these are the nations that do not score highly on global indices of Internet freedom. China’s stance to legalise its digital barrier is a step closer to Internet sovereignty. The said “Golden Shield” of China is a giant mechanism of surveillance that blocks hundreds of millions of websites which are not in consonance to the Communist party’s agenda/ control including giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. It was also reported by US Officials that eight out of 25 most trafficked sites globally are blocked in China. China has rules that restrict foreign companies from publishing online content and proposed tighter rules requiring websites to register domain names with the Chinese government.
China has even strengthened the control on virtual private network (VPN) providers which allows tunnels under the firewall. VPNs exist at the pleasure of the government. Using VPN service to access blocked websites might attract a trip to the local police station. Google is still blocked in China with alternative local search engine Baidu which has its results heavily censored. As Chinese companies and its apps are spreading beyond the geography of China, the concerns over their activity is coming under scrutiny for tracking, monitoring users across the globe and not restricted to Chinese citizens. Though China is known for censoring content on its platform that would be sensitive in China, such platforms with growing popularity and its existence in the world are expected to follow rules and regulations from Chinese authorities and lead to content surveillance.
During hostilities and conflict between China and other countries, data from these apps will put the Chinese regime to a great geopolitical advantage. It can have a real-time picture of various strategic and tactical initiatives undertaken by the other country for its defence and combat preparedness. Apart from the data gathered in due course of business, deliberate vulnerabilities left in the software and hardware of ubiquitous cheap Chinese smartphones can lead to severe compromise of individuals as well as organisational information. Ill-protected and insecure coding of Chinese operating systems and apps can also allow for further targeted attacks by providing an initial foothold into the victim’s devices. A rapid and thorough assessment of Chinese apps from the point of view of national security as well as individual privacy is the urgent need of the hour.
Time is also ripe to learn from the Dragon; it first blocked the popular platforms, created a sovereign data space, and rapidly innovated to create viable alternatives, which generated trillions of dollars for domestic IT companies. While we may not be able to replicate what it did, we can put brilliant Indians’ minds together to transition from a passive market to a primary producer of cutting-edge technology.
Brijesh Singh is Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra, and Khushbu Jain is a practicing advocate in the Supreme Court.
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FARMERS’ PROTEST HAS LOST ITS LEGITIMACY
What after 26 January 2021? This is a question that the citizens of this country want the government to answer. There must be accountability for the mayhem unleashed on the national capital on Republic Day, when a religious flag was put up at the place where the Prime Minister of India hoists the Indian Tricolour on Independence Day. In effect, this meant the desecration of the two most important days that are at the core of India’s nationhood—Republic Day and Independence Day. As rioters armed with swords, machetes, guns, stones and sticks ran amok in the city, the nation watched in horror the scenes unfolding on their television screens—hooligans trying to mow down the police with their tractors, assaulting them with swords, in fact not sparing even policewomen, vandalizing the Red Fort, destroying public and private property. The list is long. It was the darkest Republic Day ever, and those behind it must be punished. Punishment should not be limited to those who carried out the attack, but should also be meted out to those farm leaders who stoked the fire. And reparations should be sought from the vandals and their leaders.
The farmers’ agitation has lost its legitimacy because of the violence. It was anyway confined to a minuscule section of India’s farmers, and at best was representative of a state and some adjacent areas. In fact their demand—that the farm laws be repealed—was disproportionate to the influence they command and made their motive suspect, especially since they did not want any discussion on the laws. Their motive was political—to turn Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government into a lame duck one, fearful of implementing reforms. And after Tuesday’s violence, it is clear that the farm leaders cannot even control their own flock, and worse, some of them may even have been involved in stoking the violence. Hence, the government should stop talking to them with immediate effect. The government cannot be seen to be giving in to violent tactics. Right to protest cannot be a carte blanche to create mayhem. Tuesday saw the violation of the right to protest. There was also a breach of trust, where every rule that the farmers had promised to follow was violated. After this, it cannot be business as usual—not any longer. Violence cannot be normalized in the name of right to protest, as else this will become the practice, with different interest groups resorting to such means to force the government on the back foot. This was tried during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and now again on 26 January—and this is being done with an eye to destabilise a democratically elected government, internationalise certain matters and paint the government and the country in the bleakest possible colours.
As the Opposition is unable to counter the ruling party electorally, and as Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands head and shoulders above every political leader in the country, the strategy is to ensure that the opposition to him comes from the streets, through violence and through the blocking of major arterial roads along the borders of the national capital. Now that this pattern has been established, what is the government doing to counter similar protests in the future? At both Shaheen Bagh and at the farmers’ protest the escalation could have been avoided if the protesters had been dispersed in the initial days. Refusal to sit in protest at a designated site shows malintent. Hence, protests where the intention is to disrupt trade and commerce, and cause inconvenience to the people cannot be allowed to fester.
Also, why was permission given to take out the tractor rally, especially when known radical elements are part of the protest? It’s difficult to believe that there was no intelligence that the rally could lead to a major conflagration, that also on Republic Day. Why were the farmers’ promise to stick to the rulebook taken at face value? The very fact that violence started early in the morning, hours before the designated time for the tractor rally, proves that the plan was to disrupt the Republic Day parade. This should have been obvious to the agencies. That the parade was not disrupted was because of the alacrity of the Delhi police, which must be commended for facing the weapons-carrying extremist elements with nothing but sticks, shields and some tear gas. Their restraint in the face of extreme provocation was exemplary. But now is the time for action. It is time to show that just because the state did not use its firepower, and rightly so, does not mean it is a soft state. The message should go out that being humane is not a sign of weakness. Hence, it’s time to identify the culprits and unleash the power of the law on them. Too much leeway has been given to these agitators. Not anymore.
How PM Modi’s labour code bills are transforming India
Parliament, in the Monsoon Session last year, passed three labour code bills—the Industrial Relations Code, Social Security Code and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code. Meanwhile, the Wage Code Bill, 2019 had been passed by the Parliament in 2019. The Wage Code Bill replaced four related legislations – the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965 and the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976. Addressing the Rajya Sabha after the passage of the Bill, Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar had said in 2019, “The Code on Wages will ensure statutory protection for minimum wages and timely payment of wages to approximately 500 million workers in the organised and unorganised sectors. It will also do away with regional imbalances and wage variations with a floor wage to be determined by a “Tripartite Committee” comprising representatives of trade unions, employers’ organisations and state governments.”
Key provisions like making all categories of workers eligible for minimum wages, as against only 30% of the workforce being eligible at present, are indeed path-breaking. Minimum wages would be extended to the entire services sector, to domestic workers, unorganised workers and teachers, among others, to mainstream the informal sector. The Narendra Modi government pushed through these unprecedented reforms to make India a globally competitive manufacturing hub by passing the aforesaid labour codes to simplify India’s archaic and labyrinthine central and state-level labour laws. This would make it easier for foreign and Indian companies to conduct business activities in India without compromising on workers’ welfare in any way.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done what none before him could even dare to attempt. India’s labour market reforms will herald the dawn of a new era in making businesses more efficient, cutting down extra flab and allowing flexibility in hiring and retrenchment, making industrial strikes difficult, removing multiple licensing and paperwork and, of course, getting rid of disguised unemployment. Disguised unemployment is a scenario where employees are underutilised and therefore underpaid, as there is not enough work that can be allocated to them for various reasons.
India jumped 14 places to the 63rd position in the ease of doing business (EODB) rankings last year and by 79 positions in five years (2014-19). The Covid-19 situation has made the lives of both the employer and employee relatively difficult. Under these circumstances, these new labour codes are bound to make new enterprises investor friendly, increase ease of doing business and make it attractive to invite foreign entities which want to exit China. A key element of the proposed Social Security Code is to clearly define migrant workers and also enlarge the scope of the current scheme to cover the gig economy and those outside the organised sector, while recognising the emergence of online platforms and aggregators that provide access to workers. The bill has mandated the registration of all unorganised and gig and platform workers and the provision of insurance, maternity, creche and old age protection benefits. Industries and workers are two sides of the same coin and these three bills have tried to balance the rights and obligations of both employers and employees.
Besides, it has been proposed that companies with up to 300 workers be allowed to hire and fire workers without seeking prior government permission, as part of the Industrial Relation Code Bill, 2020. The earlier threshold had been up to 100 workers. Companies with more than 300 workers need to apply for approval, but if authorities do not respond to their request, then it will be deemed approved. Besides, as per the IR Code, a notice period of 60 days will have to be given by trade unions or employees before going on a strike. During the pendency of proceedings before a Tribunal or National Industrial Tribunal, and even 60 days after the conclusion of such proceedings, workers cannot go on a strike. Strike conditions have been applied to all industries. Currently, it is between two weeks and six weeks. This is a game-changing move that will discourage flash strikes and enhance productivity significantly.
Together, these four labour codes consolidate and reconcile more than 40 central labour laws and over 100 state laws on the subject that hitherto often contradicted each other, making labour compliance a nightmare for businesses operating across the country. For example, there was no universally accepted definition of “wage” across the country. This resulted in differences in interpretation, frequent litigation and a perverse incentive for industries to stay small to avoid onerous provisions that kick in with higher labour counts. The new labour codes, however, incentivise both small and large businesses and disincentivise the deliberate need to stay small.
Going forward, however, these four codes will replace the welter of federal and provincial laws. One of the major factors impeding India’s global competitiveness and hindering the entry of large global manufacturing companies looking for alternatives to China is India’s rigid, stringent and outdated labour laws. But successive Congress-led governments that ruled India for decades together never mustered the political will or courage to carry out the long overdue labour reforms, blinded by the jaded and outdated Nehru-Mahalanobis model, that was steeped in an incompetent, socialist mindset. Most Indian governments over the years have also shied away from trying to reform the labour markets because of opposition from labour unions and the political parties with which these labour unions are affiliated.
India, till recently, ranked 103rd out of 141 countries, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), on the competitiveness of its labour market. The new labour codes address all labour related issues without cutting back on worker benefits in any way. Interestingly, a research paper by University of Kent economist Amrit Amirapu and Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Gechter found that India’s restrictive labour regulations are associated with a 35% increase in a company’s labour costs. Several onerous procedures apply to companies with 10 or more employees, which have given rise to the practice of businesses incorporating several companies, often benami and shell companies, just to report under 10 employees. This was amongst the main reasons for the high cost of compliance with India’s labour laws, including costs emanating from corruption. However, thanks to the tremendous determination, reformist mindset and courage of conviction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the new labour codes will curb corruption and cut through the swathe of unnecessary paperwork and compliances, thereby, incentivising entrepreneurship, among other things.
India under an inept Congress had watched from the sidelines as many contract manufacturers and western MNCs in China set up factories in the Philippines and Vietnam and even Bangladesh as India›s labour laws made it globally uncompetitive. For example, these countries have several export-oriented factories employing 10,000-plus workers each, in sectors such as garments, footwear, toys and jewellery. But investors were reluctant to set up such large factories in India, because labour law compliance costs alone would make them globally uncompetitive. The Modi government›s new labour codes, however, are expected to address these decade-old concerns to make India globally competitive and get the Indian industry, both domestic and foreign-owned, ready for a post-Covid world.
Another oft-repeated complaint against India was the prevalence of the so-called Inspector Raj—intrusive inspections by government officials that had become a tool to harass businesses and extract rent from them. The new codes address all these issues without cutting back on any worker benefits.
As part of its Aatmanirbhar Bharat push, the government has decided to encourage medium enterprises to grow in size. The bill also reflects the changing nature of the economy; the growth of the gig sector and the vulnerability of sections of workers, from migrant labourers to house helpers, who despite playing a crucial role did not fit into the traditional definition of a “worker”, will finally get their due now. The new proposed labour laws will amalgamate 29 existing labour laws and pave the way for simplifying laws and take welfare measures to India’s 50 crore workers, spanning the organised and unorganised sectors.
Some experts allege that the blanket exemptions to industries through various provisions will lead to social and economic unrest, promote contractualisation and take away job security and wage security. These allegations are baseless as, in many areas, fixed-term workers and regular workers will enjoy equal benefits. The Social Security Code also aims at universalising social security by bringing informal workers under its ambit. Henceforth, companies with less than 20 workers can voluntarily join EPFO to get social security benefits and internal workers will be free to voluntarily join the employee state insurance (ESI) scheme for getting healthcare benefits. The Code also talks about platform companies employing gig workers to make a provision of 1% to 2% of their profits for the social security needs of their workers.
People need not work continuously for five years to get gratuity benefits, according to the new Social Security Code bill. The Code has removed the mandatory minimum gratuity threshold of five years, while introducing a different threshold structure for various categories of workers. Regular and permanent employees will now have to work for at least five years to become eligible, while fixed-term or contractual workers will have no such limit. Instead, their gratuity payment will be linked to their tenure of work. For working journalists, the Code makes a provision to avail gratuity benefits after three years of service, and for seasonal workers, gratuity payments equivalent to the salary for seven days will be provided for every season of work. Earlier, the five-year gratuity payment was mandatory, which meant that millions of workers used to forfeit their gratuity deposits, the salary for 15 days for every year of work, if they resigned or lost their jobs before the stipulated period. However, the bill makes provisions such that if an employee is involved in damaging activities and/or has damaged property, his gratuity payment can either be adjusted against the damage or forfeited.
The new labour codes also do away with multiple licenses required under different central and state laws and provide for a single licensing mechanism and will, thus, improve the ease of doing business in India. The new Code also revamps outdated laws on industrial disputes by simplifying the adjudication procedures. This is expected to lead to early resolution of labour disputes.
Opposition parties like the Congress and the Left and leftist trade unions have objected to this Code, saying it will make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers but the law addresses this issue by providing for a reskilling fund to help train workers who may lose their jobs. This Code lays down the safety standards that have to be followed by different sectors and mandates the number of hours that employees can be made to work, specifies their leaves and other entitlements. More importantly, it recognises the rights of contract workers, also called fixed-term employees, and gives them the same benefits as regular workers in terms of social security benefits and wages.
The Code lays down an eight-hour work day for all workers and a maximum of six working days a week. Businesses wanting their employees to work more than eight hours a day will have to pay them overtime wages at twice the regular rate. This will be applicable to all units, regardless of size. By mandating companies to provide social security to contract workers, the law gives them an ample level of security. This will especially help the gifting, toy and furniture sectors. These sectors typically see a spike in demand in the run-up to the festive season and allow Indian companies to service the Christmas market in the US and in Europe and other parts of the world, without having to take on board workers for the full year. This crucial reform will allow Indian companies to henceforth hire fixed-term employees depending on seasonal demand.
The new labour codes specifically mandate the equality of women employees, who can now be engaged in all types of work in all businesses and are subject to health and safety considerations. They can work before 6 am and beyond 7 pm, but only with their express consent. In another woman-friendly measure, the law says that no business can employ a woman for six weeks following the delivery of a child, miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy. In a path-breaking provision, this Code also mandates businesses to provide separate toilets and locker rooms for male, women and transgender workers. The fact that this law specifies safety standards that have to be followed by different sectors and mandates the number of hours that employees can be made to work is hugely empowering for workers. The new Social Security Code will replace nine Social Security laws, including the Employees’ Provident Fund Act, Employees’ Pension Scheme, Employees’ Compensation Act and Maternity Benefit Act, among others.
This Code brings workers in the unorganised sector as well as freelance workers, who are sometimes called gig or platform workers, into the ambit of social security coverage and mandates companies such as Uber, Ola, Zomato and others, to set aside 1-2% of their annual turnover in a social security fund, to be administered by the Government of India, for their workers. It also extends social security cover for agricultural workers for the first time and eases the conditions for payment of gratuity to employees, including those on fixed term contracts.
All employees will now have an offer letter and both the Centre and the States will create a database on migrant workers and offer them several benefits including the portability of the public distribution system and construction cess benefits. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s groundbreaking labour laws have been envisaged by recognising the changes in the global scenario in a post-Covid world. The new labour codes seek to transform India and rid it of outdated technologies and methodologies. The reduction in compliance burden would also facilitate the expansion of establishments, helping to create jobs on a large-scale, across a plethora of segments and sectors, giving Prime Minister Modi’s transformational ‘Make in India’ vision a huge boost.
The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal.
MAJOR TAKEAWAYS FROM THE REPUBLIC DAY PARADE
There were two highlights of the Republic Day parade this year, carried out in Covid times. The first, of course, was the tableau that showcased the Indian Covid vaccines. It certainly is a matter of great pride for us to have, not one, but two options, albeit one being ‘Made in India’ through and through, and the second being manufactured in India. But, at a time when the entire world is looking to combat the pandemic, it is reassuring to see India being self-sufficient. Yes, one has heard the debates and the controversies surrounding both the vaccines, but by and large, we are also seeing a lot of doctors speaking up in favour of the vaccines now, stating that the after-effects of having Covid are far worse than taking the vaccine. And this is a message that should not be taken lightly, for one is hearing horrid stories about the long-term impacts of Covid, weakness and muscle fatigue being just some of them. Hospitals are now setting up as many long haul Covid care centres as they have centres for combating the disease. That itself should tell us something. What will help, of course, is if our politicians, especially our Prime Minister, take the vaccine as have most other world leaders. Such is Narendra Modi’s credibility that this gesture alone will erase most of the doubts that the scientific community is raising. Don’t forget that when he asked us all to go to our balconies and join him in clapping hands and banging bartans (dishes) to combat Covid, we did. Now, if he takes the vaccine and asks us to follow him, who won’t?
The other highlight of this Republic Day was, of course, the parallel parade of the tractor rally. Without going into the farmers’ laws and the continuing farmers’ protests, I want to focus on the event itself: the sight of citizens becoming a part of the Republic Day celebrations and expressing their views on something they are passionate about. While the sentiment is to be applauded, it can set a precedent for chaos, for what if another interest group wants to join in a protest rally for some other cause tomorrow? Or, if it gets out of hand, as it happened with the march today? The protesting farmers have distanced themselves from the events of the day, the face-offs and clashes with the police, the storming of the Red Fort and the breakdown of the discipline that had so far symbolised the protest. It could be that some groups with vested interests forced their way onto the farmers’ tractor parade with the sinister design of giving it a bad name. This is what Rakesh Tikait and other farmer leaders are claiming and one thing does stand out in all this – what happened during a section of the tractor parade does not gel with the protests so far.
Look at the last 60 days and the way the entire protest was being carried out so as to disrupt the country but with the least amount of discomfort and traffic jams. We did not see this during either the Anna Hazara and Baba Ramdev protests or of the ones opposing the CAA. Somehow, this does not fit in with what happened on 26 January, leading one to believe that perhaps Tikait and Co. have a point. Why give the government and its army of ‘nationalist’ supporters something to beat the farmers with? So far, the protesting farmers have been very careful not to fall into the trap of being labelled `Khalistanis’ and ‘anti-nationals’. Why then would they fall into this trap now? Especially when you take a look at Deep Sidhu, the young man who allegedly raised the Nishan Sahib flag atop the Red Fort. Protest leaders had already distanced themselves from him much earlier when he had revealed a pro-Khalistan slant on TV interviews. This gentleman was also apparently a part of Sunny Deol’s campaign team in the last election. So, why would the farmers task him with any role at all in their movement?
Something certainly went wrong on Republic Day. But are we laying the blame at the right door?
Something certainly went wrong on the Republic Day. But are we laying the blame at the right door?
Who gave pseudo-intellectuals the right to malign national symbols?
From making statements about cancelling the Republic Day celebrations to writing derogatory articles on the cow, certain misdirected intellectuals in the country have a tendency of showing insensitive or downright hostility towards important national, cultural and religious symbols. It is time for them to realise that such behaviours benefit neither them nor the nation at large.
The concept of a nation, being abstract and complex, can’t be defined only by its geographical boundaries and political system. It is reflected in its national and cultural symbols as well. It’s not without reason that all countries, from ancient civilisations like India, China, Egypt and Greece to relatively newer countries like the US, have specific national and cultural symbols. Every country is sensitive to these icons because not only are they symbols of the nation’s self-respect and identity, but are also rallying points for national unity. Therefore, there is a special need to respect and protect these symbols.
The role of intellectuals is important in this regard because, as torchbearers, they provide a direction to both the country and society. Unfortunately, the vision of the Indian intellectual class, beset by the Western mindset, has been largely negative when it comes to our national and cultural symbols. Some recent events—whether the issue surrounding the celebration of the Republic Day, the controversy around the renaming of Aurangabad, or an editorial on cows written a couple of days ago for a leading English newspaper (also assumed to be the mouthpiece of these misdirected or ‘maha’ intellectuals) —clearly delineate this picture. The strategy of these so-called intellectuals towards Indian national and cultural symbols is three pronged: neglect them, ridicule them, and oppose them. One often finds a permutation or combination of these three operating on the ground.
To begin with, announcing to take out a tractor protest parade on 26 January on the instigation of the so-called liberal-leftist intellectuals, which has amalgamated in the ongoing peasant movement, is an insult to the Republic Day and the Indian Constitution. The right to protest can never include a right to maligning national symbols and, by extension, the nation before the world. The Republic Day is not an ordinary day. Not only did our Constitution come into force on this day in 1950, but it also holds immense historical significance because the Independence Day was celebrated for the first time on 26 January, 1930. Keeping in mind this significance, the Constitution was enacted on this date in 1950.
However, Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, considered to be an intellectual, citing the cancellation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit as the chief guest on Republic Day, called for the Republic Day celebrations to be simply cancelled. It is to be noted that the British PM cancelled his scheduled visit to India on account of the second wave of Covid-19 in England. After Tharoor, well-known lawyer and NCP leader Majid Memon along with Shiv Sena spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi jumped into the fray in support of the statement. While people like Tharoor and Memon are notorious for making ludicrous statements, the demand to cancel the Republic Day celebrations was unprecedented.
In fact, it can be argued that there was a greater need to celebrate this national event today. It needed to be done in order to, on one hand, boost the morale of the countrymen in the current Covid crisis, and, on the other hand, send out a message to hostile countries like China and Pakistan that India stands as strong as ever even in this critical time. The ceremony is also a message for the financially well-endowed global club willing to invest in India, telling them that the situation in India is coming under control. Of course, this Republic Day needed to be celebrated at a relatively smaller scale, unlike the previous Republic Days, and it was a welcome decision by the Narendra Modi government to celebrate it in a toned-down manner, while maintaining all the protocols required for the pandemic. It should be noted that when the Covid crisis was at its peak in June and July last year, even the most afflicted countries like Italy, America and Russia didn’t cancel their National Day celebrations. National days and their symbolic significance have immense importance and it is difficult for patriotic people to ignore them.
Another major incident showing disregard to another national symbol – the Indian flag – took place in October last year, when PDP President Mehbooba Mufti said that she wouldn’t hold the Indian tricolour till the status of the former Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was restored. However, interestingly, the country’s pseudo-liberals and intellectuals maintained stoic silence on this questionable attitude towards the national symbol of the tricolour. It must be mentioned here that had these above mentioned statements come from a BJP or RSS functionary, Lutyens’ Delhi and its media would have ripped them apart, and the Modi government would have been accused of violating constitutional norms and decorum and simultaneously murdering the Constitution.
Apart from national symbols, a country has various cultural symbols too, such as great people, historical monuments, icons and places, etc. At the individual level, these cultural icons are such great men and women, with whom the society feels proud to identify itself. They are ideal figures, embodying the highest human virtues. Currently, a controversy has erupted in Maharashtra with regard to changing the name of the city of Aurangabad to Sambhaji Nagar. The so-called intellectuals, besides politicians, are opposed to it. Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, son of the legendary Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, was mercilessly killed in this area by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The city was renamed Aurangabad after Aurangzeb. Manu Pillai, an author and historian, in his book The Ivory Throne, iterates that Aurangzeb had not built the city originally. Another argument by some people, that changing the name will not change the fate of the city, is also absurd. It must be asked then why the same reasoning was not advanced when the Congress government renamed Pondicherry (the colonial nomenclature) to Puducherry in 2006 or the Communist Party government renamed Trivandrum (also a colonial nomenclature) to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991. No self-respecting society can accept with pride the name given by the tormenter, tyrant or colonial ruler. But then, double standards are the norm followed by some of our “intellectuals”.
Apart from the politics of neglect and opposition, there is a covert tendency, distressfully, to ridicule the cultural and religious icons of the nation. However, the fact that our “intellectuals” and “illiberals” have a partisan approach and a negative predisposition towards only Hindu symbols adds to the situation. The latest instance is an editorial write-up from a couple of days ago, a disgusting and derogatory one, on cows, in a leading English newspaper. Although it’s true that in the past a few anti-social elements and miscreants created a furore in the name of the cow, it doesn’t give license to write disrespectfully about the religious-cultural symbol of 100 crore Hindus, which is just as integral to other communities of India and the nation as a whole. Had someone written something similar about the symbols of some other religions, all the so-called “secularists” would have created a ruckus. Slogans as “Religions of the minorities are in danger in ‘Modi-Shah-Bhagwat Raj” would have reverberated all around.
A look at the past confirms dozens of such incidents. Whether it is the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in Ayodhya or Amartya Sen’s attitude towards the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Bengal, whether it’s regarding Sanskrit prayers in the Kendriya Vidyalayas or the issue of the inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita in Indian and Western Philosophy courses, the same pattern operates in all these instances. The sordid games of these reprobates don’t stop here and extend to accusing constitutional symbols, institutions like the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and the CAG and more, as well. Unfortunately, even on the life-saving Covid vaccine, a symbol of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’, developed and ‘Made in India’, politics has started.
It is time to take cognisance of the fact by these “intellectuals” and self-nominated “keepers of conscience”, with a vituperative predisposition towards the national and cultural symbols of India, are fast losing their credibility, and that such an attitude is neither in their interest nor the nation’s.
The writer is a Professor in the Department of Hindi, University of Delhi. He has also taught in various universities in the US. The views expressed are personal.
INDIA WITH ITS HEALING TOUCH IS A NATURAL LEADER
A year after the world saw the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we can say with certainty that India’s handling of this health crisis has been stellar, in spite of the large number of cases it has recorded. In a country with a population of 1.3 billion, India has had one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, apart from having the lowest number of cases per million people. However, there were enough prophets of doom a year ago—most of them based in the West—who predicted hundreds of millions of cases, millions of deaths, a collapsed health system, dead bodies piling up in drains and anarchy on the streets. In short, everything in keeping with what is known as the “image problem” that India has, according to the West. From there to have over 90 countries approaching India for vaccines to tackle the coronavirus scare, even as India gifts millions of vaccine shots to neighbouring countries, it is increasingly apparent that India’s “image” has been burnished many times over in these critical times. The “less fortunate” of the world now know which country to turn to at a time when the corona pandemic is wreaking havoc on their lives and livelihoods. India can provide them with vaccines tailor-made to suit their needs—vaccines that are low cost, do not need extreme storage conditions that vaccines manufactured in the West do, but that are equally effective. However, India’s act of giving millions of vaccine doses to its neighbours for free is being seen by its perpetual critics through the narrow prism of “vaccine diplomacy” and “buying influence”. The truth is that extending a helping hand to countries in need is inherent to the Indian civilizational ethos of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”—the “world is one family”. Lest we forget, it was India which rescued even Americans from Yemen in one of the biggest airlifts that it conducted to evacuate its own citizens from that war-torn country in 2015. Again in 2015, it was India which was the fastest to reach out to Nepal with aid when earthquake shattered that country. India’s track record is replete with such examples, including for instance, its humanitarian activities to rebuild Afghanistan. In return, the support—or strategic heft—India gets from different countries on international platforms is a plus, and not necessarily the end towards which it has employed certain means.
Contrast this with what China’s communists have been doing to the world. Apart from unleashing the virus, thus destroying lives and livelihoods, Beijing is now “weaponizing” the vaccine to try and make its “client countries” fall in line. In India’s immediate neighbourhood, Bangladesh turned to India to buy the Covishield vaccine after Beijing asked Dhaka to share the cost of clinical trials of the CoronaVac vaccine. Apparently, this is the condition that China has imposed on all countries where it has conducted clinical trials. In response, not only did New Delhi help Dhaka get a contract with the vaccine manufacturer for 30 million doses, but also gave it two million doses for free. Then there is the case of Brazil, where speculation is that criticism of China over the spread of the pandemic made Beijing delay vaccine shipment. Then with China being opaque about its data, doubts started surfacing about how effective its vaccines were. Reports from Brazil were that the Chinese CoronaVac was barely 50% effective. So now India has started supplying its Covishield vaccine to Brazil, with the first shipment of two million doses reaching that country last week. Then in Philippines, there is an outcry over the lack of data on China’s vaccines, which have also been found to be overpriced. In this context, let’s not forget the PPE fiasco involving Chinese manufacturers last year, when China sent sub-standard PPE kits to countries, leading to an uproar. With its sub-standard vaccines, choppy delivery schedules, and the arm-twisting of its “client states”, China’s aim of winning hearts and minds while it overtakes US as the sole superpower of the world has faced a huge setback.
This is the time for India to live up to its potential as the vaccine manufacturing hub of the world—a manufacturer of affordable and good quality vaccines. It must pay heed to countries that are reaching out to it. Even Barbados in the faraway Caribbean has turned to India for 200,000 doses, with the hope of “kind consideration” for half of the supply. For a country like India, this would cost a pittance, but will earn it a lot of goodwill. In fact, there are many such tiny countries around the world, the Pacific Island countries for example, that desperately need the vaccines, but whose requirements are minuscule because they are thinly populated. Providing them with vaccines will help India spread its global footprints and win friends. Unlike China, India is not a transactional power; it’s not a malevolent power. India’s humane face is for real, not a mask like China’s is. India has the healing touch. India is the world’s pharmacy—the Dhanvantari. India is the power with the big heart. The world has realized India’s potential. It is time India lived up to that potential and not shy away from being the natural leader it is.
Chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ isn’t communal, Mamata Didi
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee getting upset by chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at a recent event is only the latest of such episodes. Her reaction not only exposes her communal politics and appeasement policies, but also speaks of her ignorance of Lord Ram as a cultural icon in India.
Why does West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee get so irritated by the chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’? Does she feel that at a time when the whole country is jubilant at the start of construction of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya, being seen as an opponent of Lord Ram would polarise Muslims towards her. In doing so, does she forget that Lord Ram is ancestor of even Muslims who got converted into Islam a few centuries back.
The way she reacted at a function at Victoria Memorial on 23 January, the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, left a bad impression about her understanding of India’s cultural ethos. What is the big deal if some people from the audience shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’? There is no constitutional bar on shouting such slogans at a government function. The slogan of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was also heard. Some security people were even seen dissuading the crowd from chanting. Instead of using the opportunity to address the audience, she found the chanting by a section of the people gathered there insulting. She refused to speak further after lodging her protest.
This is not the first time she has reacted in this fashion. In May 2019, some people had shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ when she had passed through the Bhatpara area of the 24 North Parganas district, the scene of the violence between BJP and Trinamool Congress workers after the Lok Sabha results gave the BJP an impressive victory. Banerjee had gotten infuriated, come out of the car and shouted back at them, then asked her officials to note down their names.
“What do you think of yourself? You will come from other states, stay here and abuse us? I will not tolerate this. How dare you all abuse me? All of your names and details will be noted down,” she had said angrily. When she had gotten into the car, people had repeated the chant and she had come out again, visibly upset and angry. More than half a dozen people had been detained.
How can such a slogan be an abuse? Is it then Banerjee’s truth that opposing the ‘Shri Ram’ chant is akin to opposing the BJP, since the BJP has been the most vocal supporter of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya? The logical extension of this would be that those opposed to the BJP would support her opposition to the chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. At a time when the state is going to witness an assembly election, this is her desperate attempt to safeguard her Muslim vote bank that is facing division due to the rise of local Muslim political players.
But this sort of politics may boomerang against her. An average person in the state would be surprised by her disproportionate response. Lord Ram to them is a god as well as a cultural figure. He is the symbol of good and virtuosity, and represents the ultimate moral values that define humanity and makes possible the betterment of human society. In Him, they find how one should be as a member of family and how one should behave as a ruler. Death rituals are incomplete without the name of Ram (“Ram naam satya hai” means “the name of Lord Ram is the ultimate truth”). When the values of one person, whom Hindus consider as God, pervades society so much, how can one object to chants of His name?
Does Banerjee not know this reality about India? Of course, she does! But she is victim of her own communal politics. It is this communal mindset that makes her substitute ‘Ram’ with ‘rong’ in ‘ramdhenu’ (rainbow) and ‘aasmani’ for ‘aakashi’ (of the sky) in school textbooks. This is her way of secularising the cultural symbols of West Bengal. She has gone on to stay the tradition of immersing Durga idols so that Muharram processions could take precedence. She has no problems with the use of arms and self-inflicting injuries during Muharram, but has problems with Shashtra Puja during Dussehra.
In her appeasement of the Muslim community, she has crossed all barriers. And this time she has been completely exposed, forcing her to retract and issue a statement that she has no problems with the chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. But now she can’t avoid being greeted by this chant in every nook and corner of the state. Street urchins and other people are likely to tease her by chanting this. This chant is going to reverberate throughout the election period in her state. People have discovered a non-lethal weapon to use against her. While some will do it for fun, others, mostly BJP workers, will do so to challenge her communal politics.
There are some cynics who often try to compare the chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ with ‘Allah Hu Akbar’. They are not the same. The latter has been historically used as a war cry to demolish and destroy non-believers in Islam. The former has never been used as a war cry despite being of a more ancient origin. The war cries often heard in Hinduism are ‘Har Har Mahadev’, ‘Jai Mahakali’ or ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. The Sikhs’ chant, ‘Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”, also falls under that category.
The eye-opener for Banerjee should be the donation campaign started for construction of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. People have so much love and respect for Ram that within two days of the appeal for donations for the construction, the Ram Janmabhoomi TeerthKshetra Trust has received Rs 100 crore. The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, has donated Rs 5,00,100 from his personal account.
If pandemonium and conflicts in the country rise, the support for building such a temple—that will be an epitome of love, peace and righteousness—will only increase. Righteousness is dharma. The figure of God for Hindus has no enemy because this is the oldest religion and one that does not speak against anyone. It did not have to compete since other religions did not exist then. Thus, Lord Ram spoke for all of humanity.
Lord Ram lives in the consciousness of the average Indian. The traditional form of greeting in the country in place of “Namaste” used to be “Ram Ram” and other variants. If a politician fails to understand this, he or she would do so at his own peril. West Bengal is no different. People will come and go but Lord Ram and the ideals He represents will stay till eternity.
The writer is convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.
There are some cynics who often try to compare the chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ with ‘Allah Hu Akbar’. They are not the same. The latter has been historically used as a war cry to demolish and destroy non-believers in Islam. The former has never been used as a war cry despite being of a more ancient origin. The war cries often heard in Hinduism are ‘Har Har Mahadev’, ‘Jai Mahakali’ or ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’. The Sikhs’ chant, ‘Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”, also falls under that category.
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