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INDIA-US STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP IS ON TRACK

Joyeeta Basu

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The recent flurry of communication between the Narendra Modi government and the Joe Biden administration should put to rest speculation about the new US government not being serious about India-US strategic partnership. Much was made of the fact that President Biden did not mention India in his first major foreign policy speech delivered at the State Department on 4 February. He mentioned US’ “closest friends” “Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia” and the need to rebuild “the muscle of democratic alliances”. After which it was being argued that India did not hold much value for the Biden administration. The Indo-Pacific was not even mentioned in the speech, although China was put front and centre as a rival, who must be countered. It’s a different matter though that there has been criticism of Biden for seeing China as a competitor, and not necessarily a country that the US will be in conflict with—thus giving it too much leeway. Significantly, neither “Quad” nor “Indo-Pacific” found any mention in the speech, making naysayers go to town about India’s loss of relevance. The phone calls ever since have to be seen in this context. After the first call between Prime Minister Modi and the then President-elect, in November 2020, there was another call between the Prime Minister and the President on Monday, 8 February 2021, where the White House readout of the call mentioned “close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad”. There was also mention of resolve to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, renewing “partnership on climate change”, rebuilding “the global economy in a way that benefits the people of both countries”, apart from standing “together against the scourge of global terrorism”. A significant change in this is the terminology used by the Biden administration, which has graduated from calling the region “Asia-Pacific”—a term favoured by China—before it took office, to “Indo-Pacific”, thus putting the Indian Ocean Region at the centre of the foreign policy narrative. In other words, when it comes to climate change and the Indo-Pacific, the Joe Boden administration realises that it needs to strengthen its strategic partnership with India, of which stronger defence and economic ties between the two countries are natural components.

However, the press release of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) about the same conversation, while talking about a “rules-based international order and a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”, did not mention the word “Quad”. Hence, instead of questioning US’ commitment to Quad, speculation is bound to arise about India not willing to be upfront about the Quad for fear of alienating the Russians and their overlord, the Chinese. Both these countries have been vociferous in their opposition to Quad and of India being a part of it, since the Quad is seen as an anti-China bloc. India’s silence on the Quad is a little surprising, considering moves are afoot to operationalise the grouping, however tentative, and that India, Japan and Australia have started talking about building supply chain resilience as part of the Quad structure. There is no shying away from the fact that Quad, to be more than a chatroom, eventually will have to be a security alliance, as there is no other way of countering China’s hegemony, and India will have to play an important role to operationalise it.

Following the phone call, there was another discussion between Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken—their second interaction—about the Indo-Pacific, as well as the coup in Myanmar. In fact, the White House readout of the conversation between President Biden and PM Modi also talked about “shared commitment to democratic values” being “the bedrock for the US-India relationship”, which found a reflection in the release issued by the MEA as well, saying “the India-US partnership is firmly anchored in a shared commitment to democratic values and common strategic interests”. However, while the White House readout mentioned that the two leaders agreed that “the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld in Burma”, the MEA statement omitted the mention of Myanmar, which should not have been the case. If India calls itself the world’s largest democracy, it cannot be reticent about condemning the coup in Myanmar, for the sake of its “strategic interests”. If not for anything else, India needs to do it to send out the message to the world that it stands by its democratic values. As it is canard is being spread worldwide by the ecosystem of a particular variety, which controls most outlets of information, about democracy receding in India. Why give that ecosystem additional “proof” of India’s lack of democratic values? Major attempts are being made to drive a wedge between India and the US and the social media and media activism against India in the last few weeks has to be seen in this context. A particular cabal, backed by Pakistan and China—the Khalistanis are a mere front—is working hard towards this goal and have roped in people they think can influence US policy towards India. The recent interactions between the two governments show that such forces are being too optimistic. But that doesn’t mean India can afford to sit on its laurels as the largest democracy in the world. It should not lose sight of the fact that the whole focus of the political warfare launched by Pakistan and China is to besmirch the most important thing that makes India great—its democracy.

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Opinion

RISE OF ABBAS SIDDIQUI WILL POLARISE BENGAL FURTHER

Joyeeta Basu

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On Sunday, a show of strength was organised in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground by the CPM and the Congress, along with the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) of cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Reports suggest that the huge crowd was not mobilized by either CPM or Congress, but primarily by Abbas Siddiqui. He is the pirzada of Furfura Sharif, a religious shrine venerated by Muslims and thus may have a major influence on that community. Let’s make no mistake, in spite of the name of Siddiqui’s outfit, there is nothing remotely “secular” about ISF. Its whole politics is premised on religious identity; and it is representative of a particular minority community. ISF hopes to tap into their grievances and raise their demands at relevant levels, and find political representation in the process. From all accounts, the young Siddiqui already has got a fan following among the youth of his community and may play a decisive role in certain minority dominated seats in the Assembly elections starting on 27 March. In fact, this minority vote bank has a decisive say in at least around a hundred seats in Bengal’s 294-seat Assembly. This has to be seen in the context of the fact that it was the en bloc voting by the minority community that helped Mamata Banerjee come to power in 2011 and return with a landslide in 2016. This vote bank was created by the CPM-led Left Front and it was only when it shifted to Mamata that she managed to defeat the CPM, which should explain her party’s pronounced tilt towards this particular community; and she is quite open about it. In fact, even Congress’ pockets of influence in certain minority dominated districts such as Malda and Murshidabad are because of this particular community. However, there is major grievance in this community that the so-called secular parties have always used them as a vote bank, but have done nothing for them. Siddiqui hopes to tap into this grievance, while at least talking about broad-basing his “movement” by giving a voice to the marginalized in general.

The Communists, who have become irrelevant in Bengal politics with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, are hoping to piggyback on Siddiqui’s ISF and get a chunk of Muslim votes and with that a few seats. Hence, CPM is going for a seat-sharing arrangement with ISF and is likely to give it around 30-40 seats to fight from. However, CPM’s ally Congress, or rather Adhir Chowdhury—MP and president of Congress’ Bengal unit—is not keen to join hands with ISF, in spite of what is believed to be pressure from the party high command in Delhi. This is primarily because, in the long run, Chowdhury’s minority vote bank in Murshidabad district may get dented with the entry of the cleric from Furfura Sharif. The state Congress under him is apparently unwilling to give the ISF even one seat in Murshidabad. Whether that part of the “secular” alliance works out or not, what is certain is that Siddiqui and CPM together have the potential to damage Mamata Banerjee in her stronghold in South 24 Parganas district in particular, where there is a substantial presence of minority voters. Until recently, the cleric from Furfura Sharif was seeking to be in alliance with Mamata Banerjee, but did not get any response from her. However, if Sunday’s show of strength by him is any indication, and if he manages to take away a chunk of Trinamool Congress’ Muslim voters, then sooner or later Mamata Banerjee may have to give space to Abbas Siddiqui, or else face an existential crisis, as her party’s political fortunes are totally dependent on this particular vote bank.

In the meantime, the rise of Siddiqui and the political legitimacy being given to him by the communists will further polarize, along religious lines, an already polarized state and deepen the divide in society. Whether this helps the BJP or not, will depend on the extent of minority consolidation for Mamata Banerjee and the counter consolidation of the majority in favour of the BJP. The other possibility of a hung verdict will depend on how far the CPM-led “front” can eat into the TMC’s and BJP’s respective votes. However, if there is a hung verdict, there is every possibility of the CPM, Congress, ISF and TMC coming together to form government in the name of keeping “communal BJP” out. In other words, BJP will have to sweep Bengal to come to power. Nothing short of that will do.

As for the rise of Abbas Siddiqui, only time will tell how his politics of religious identity will play out in Bengal.

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Opinion

Same-sex marriage: Undermining the bedrock of Indian society

The social unit of the family is the foundation of Indian society. Since ‘the Indian family system presupposes a biological man as a husband and a biological woman as a wife and the children born out of the union between the two’—as the Union government has argued—legalising same-sex marriages might turn the existing social order upside down and open a can of worms.

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The demand for the recognition of same-sex marriage has opened up a Pandora’s box of issues which question the very foundation of the institutions of marriage and family as building blocks of social, cultural and political life. The Delhi High Court is seized with the matter and the Union government has submitted its arguments on why it is opposed to the proposal.

When the Supreme Court was considering the issue of the validity of Section 377 of the IPC, which made homosexuality a criminal offence, the Union government had refused to give its opinion on the issue and left the matter entirely up to the Supreme Court. The apex court decriminalised homosexuality between two consenting adults. At that time, the government’s stand had been guided primarily by the argument that the government should not interfere in deciding the sexual preferences of people. There had also been many complaints before that about the law being misused to harass same-sex partners living together.

But decriminalising homosexuality is not the same thing as allowing marriage between people who identify as homosexual. The government in its affidavit has told the court that any change, such as recognising same-sex marriages, would create havoc in the delicate balance of personal laws in the country. “The Indian family system presupposes a biological man as a husband and a biological woman as a wife and the children born out of the union between the two,” it has argued.

The government has also argued that the registration of same-sex marriages would result in the violation of existing personal as well as codified law provisions such as the degree of prohibited relations, ceremonial and ritual requirement, etc. Decriminalising consensual homosexual relations in 2018 was “neither intended to, nor did it, in fact, legitimise the human conduct in question,” the affidavit has argued. It has also argued that any such change should be left to the legislature.

What is the purpose of marriage in society? Let us try to understand this without getting religion-specific since every religion has a particular way of looking at the family and they invariably sanction only heterosexual relationships. The purpose of marriage is not sex alone but the procreation of children who would become healthy citizens. If sex was the purpose, then society has many outlets, including the one provided by the amended Section 377.

For Mahatma Gandhi, marriage was exclusively for the procreation of children. British philosopher Bertrand Russell had said, “It is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognisance of by a legal institution.” If culture, religion, tradition, societal mores, etc. shape constitutional laws, then these cannot be ignored without endangering the very foundation of society.

Heterosexual biological parents have a different kind of attachment to the offspring, as various sociological studies have shown. It is no wonder paternity leave is now being allowed to the father to feel equally responsible towards parenthood and does not leave things to the mother alone. Mother’s milk is scientifically the best for children since it helps boost immunity and the biological process makes a woman produce milk after she gives birth to the child. But homosexual couples cannot have their biological children and hence they may adopt children, but can they give the same love and affection and security which biological parents can?

It is argued that those heterosexual couples who fail to procreate either adopt children or undergo artificial insemination. Why can’t the same right be given to same-sex couples? But what is the guarantee that the children adopted would not become objects of exploitation? This can be true for even heterosexual couples, but the existence of a father and mother ensures that the adopted child is not subjected to exploitation. The web of relationships that marriage brings with it in the Indian context ensures that there are checks and balances.

Many sociological studies have shown that a child adopted by a single father or mother longs for the affection of the other parent. If the tender care of a mother is needed for the overall growth of the child, the careful guardianship of a father is needed too for the security and discipline it provides. The Indian family system is the smallest social unit. It has withstood the test of time. Cultural norms and values are imbibed in new members through the process of socialization in which not just parents but other relatives also take part.

Same-sex couples in the West have often argued that they don’t get respect from society. Homosexuality is a deviant behaviour. One can make laws to decriminalise it but can’t force society to change its orientation.

Aping the West would not do our society good. In most Western societies, people have become more and more individualistic and family norms are breaking. This is not true of the Indian society. Despite rising cases of divorce and conflicts in marriages, the institution has proved to be useful. Legislations have given a cushion to ensure that people who divorce each other are not exploited by one another.

‘Once gay, always gay’ is not true and there are many cases where a gay person has walked out of it and married in a normal way and lived happily. How do you ensure marriage and divorce laws for these people? There are chances that same-sex marriages may break after sometime and the couple may decide to live a normal family life. There are also chances that the prospect of a person marrying many times would increase. In the possibility of such instability, will the adoption and rearing of children in a healthy way survive?

It is not an issue of ‘liberals vs conservatives’ which we often see in the West. It is an issue of what these gay rights activists want to achieve. You want a share in property, but that can be achieved through mutual agreement. You want healthcare facilities, which are easily available to individuals. The right to be treated with dignity as a citizen belongs to all. You wish to bequeath your property to someone, you can do so. You can do the same with your insurance and other related issues. You can give the property you earn to anyone under secular laws. If you inherit your part of property from your parents, you can do the same once you inherit it. There is absolutely no problem.

And the biggest issue is that you cannot proclaim yourself to belong to a particular religion and then claim that the marriage granted by that religion should be applicable to you as well for same-sex marriage. This means you want to change entire religious beliefs. In Hinduism in particular, marriage is not a contract but a sacrament with associated notions of spirituality, commitment and responsibility. During many religious functions, the husband and the wife have to be together to perform the rituals.

A typical flaw with the same-sex marriage argument in India is that it seeks an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act and the Special Marriage Act but does not talk of other religious practices. Can you change the law of the book? Are we prepared to say that there would be no personal laws since these violate the fundamental right to be treated equally? Can courts impose monogamy on the Muslim community in India? Why did policymakers in India work for the secularisation of Hindu laws but not for Islam? Why should the law say that polygamous marriage is prohibited for Hindus but allowed in Islam?

Gay activists have taken the right to be treated equally to ridiculous proportions. The law treats men and women based on biological differences and not on a subjective understanding of one’s sexual drive or orientation. It may also be a matter of conditioning as some studies have revealed more so in case of impressionable youths. Impressed by this conditioning, some have even gone for sex changes.

While it may have worked in some countries where people are more homogenous or where religion does not ordain secular life, it may create an explosive situation in India where religion plays a significant part in secular life as well. Religion is the source of morality, respect for each other’s lives, and values that define existence.

You cannot undermine an important social institution that has evolved over a period of time not because of law or legislation but because of its usefulness to society. Many aspects of law emanate from the concept of family. While trying to recognize same-sex marriage, there is surely going to be a disturbance of the very foundation of Indian social life. I am talking about all religionists residing in India since they come from the same stock and share the same culture despite their personal laws.

The next argument which is increasingly being made is the person acting as the female in a same-sex partnership would demand to be treated as a woman for participation in sports. If one’s right to be treated as a female is granted then biological reasons should not become a stumbling block for their right to be treated as a female. This can have disastrous consequences for society.

LGBT activists were right when they demanded that laws should not be used against them to suppress their freedom. Decriminalisation of homosexuality should be seen in that context. If there are other genuine concerns that should also be looked into, a legal framework should be provided to protect their rights. But this can happen even without legalizing same-sex marriages. In trying to be liberal and progressive, we are not going to turn everything upside down.

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.

It is not an issue of ‘liberals vs conservatives’ which we often see in the West. It is an issue of what these gay rights activists want to achieve. You want a share in property, but that can be achieved through mutual agreement. You want healthcare facilities, which are easily available to individuals. The right to be treated with dignity as a citizen belongs to all.

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Opinion

AMOD KANTH RELIVES THE TROUBLED DECADE IN THE CAPITAL

Pankaj Vohra

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Amod Kanth has without any doubt been one of the most outstanding IPS officers, who served in the capital. Although, he could not become the Commissioner of Police, yet his professional achievements have been exemplary. In Khaki in Dust Storm, his maiden book on his tenure in Delhi, he has attempted to recreate some of the most horrific cases (from 1980 to 1991) which included the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two bodyguards and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. He was also associated as a key figure in the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic killing by a suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur and helped the Special Investigation Team constituted under D.R. Karthikeyan, to unearth the conspiracy.

Having covered the crime beat very closely for multiple newspapers including the Times of India and The Hindu, I have followed Amod Kanth’s career very closely. Therefore, it is with some authority that I can speak about his various accomplishments. He has been candid while admitting in his book that he was greatly influenced by iconic seniors such as Ved Marwah, K.P.S. Gill, Vijay Karan and Mukund Kaushal. He goes on to recall what Kaushal had told him once that if you are indispensable, then you are a bad manager. However, if you create a system, it shall even function without you. This is an important management principle. The celebrated police officer has been modest about his role which was very pronounced when Marwah was confirmed as the Commissioner. The Centre had sent S.S. Jog as Commissioner, following the Sikh carnage but the upright officer due to personal reasons wanted to return to Maharashtra, his parent cadre. It was then decided that Julio Ribeiro would be the next commissioner. Ribeiro’s name plate had been fixed outside the Commissioner’s earmarked residence on Alipur Road in the Civil Lines area. However, on 10 May 1985, a series of Transistor bomb blasts took place in parts of north India including Delhi. These terrorist acts were to avenge the anti-Sikh riots. However, within 48 hours, the Delhi Police which had Marwah as the acting Chief and Amod Kanth as the DCP, Central, worked out the case following the arrest of three prime suspects, Kartar Singh Narang, Mohinder Singh Oberoi and Mohinder Singh Khalsa. This was sufficient to make the Centre review its decision and Marwah, a legendary officer in his own right, was confirmed as the new Delhi Police chief.

Amod Kanth has also written at length about the murders of Congress leaders Lalit Maken and Arjun Dass as they were perceived by militants as amongst the people responsible for the Sikh genocide. The two murders were also linked to the assassination of General Vaidya in Pune as the missions were executed by Harjinder Singh Jinda. In fact, Jinda was first arrested by the Delhi Police team under Amod Kanth but escaped when his custody was handed over to the Gujarat police. He was again re-arrested by Amod and his men on a tip off provided by Ajit Doval, then working for the Intelligence Bureau. If Amod was inspired by some of his seniors, he also influenced a whole generation of his junior colleagues. Udai Vir Singh Rathi, then a Sub Inspector, was awarded the Gallantry Medal for his daring act of challenging members of the Ravi Subhash Gang on the Yamuna Pushta. It was a do or die situation and Rathi escaped unhurt after shooting Bharat Bhushan, a gang member. The Delhi Police had come under massive criticism for its inaction during the 1984 genocide. Amod Kanth was amongst the few officers who brought the situation under control in several areas of his district and for his efforts was awarded the gallantry medal along with the then Paharganj SHO, S.S. Manan.

My first meeting with this officer took place in 1980 when Dr Patole, a resident doctor of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, committed suicide which led to an extremely tense situation. Fortunately, he and his colleagues were able to defuse this volatile matter. After that I covered him extensively when he was the DCP of West District and Central District and also of the Crime Branch. In the book, he has referred to an incident where his superior officer tried to shield looters who had attacked the Sikhs in the Karol Bagh area at the behest of two Congress leaders.

Amod’s book is a must read because it provides perspective on how the police function. However, there are many other of his professional exploits which do not find any mention. It appears that he has reserved them for his second book. Other than police, he has distinguished himself as someone who worked against child trafficking and drug abuse through Prayas, his NGO. Amod continues to be revered by his police colleagues.

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Long-standing issues and imperatives in higher education

Indian higher education provided in its majority of institutions needs a boost in its quality. Some of the important factors influencing quality are infrastructure, teachers and the teaching-learning process.

Ved Prakash

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School education and higher education have a symbiotic relationship as the former is the basis for influencing the quality of the latter. Higher education in real sense is the basis of social, cultural, political and economic transformation of the country. The role of the universities thus becomes of paramount importance. We need to emphasise that universities are not only for dissemination of knowledge, they have an onerous responsibility to create new knowledge in all domains as this is the perspective which is at the heart of the idea of a university.

The idea has been beautifully expressed in the Report of a Committee on “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education” chaired by Prof Yash Pal, where it states: “A university is a place where new ideas germinate, strike roots and grow tall and sturdy. It is a unique space, which covers the entire universe of knowledge. It is a place where creative minds converge, interact with each other and construct visions of new realities.  Established notions of truth are challenged in the pursuit of knowledge”. This vision of a university needs to be embedded into the thought process of the academic faculty and the students alike.

The annual growth rate of enrolment in higher education in India was frustratingly elusive until the mid-sixties. It showed some sign of improvement in the seventies when it registered an annual growth rate of about 2.5%. It remained in the commando crawl phase for a long time registering an annual growth rate of about 4-5% until 2005-06. Thereafter, it registered a sudden spike in 2012 crossing the Gross Enrolment Ratio of 20%. It was great but short-lived. Since then the annual growth rate has not maintained the same tempo, though the GER has crossed the 26.7% mark.

The current position reveals that the gender and social gaps seem to be narrowing down. Though the expansion process has accelerated during this century, it is still low for the country to become globally competitive. Therefore, there is a need to expand the system. It is also important to further pro-actively address the concerns of social and regional equity in higher education, as its futuristic agenda. This will require continued special support to historically disadvantaged groups for their faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth and enhanced effort to improve enrolment ratios and reduce drop-out rates, especially for girls among Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities. 

The expansion of higher education in India is accompanied by widening disparities across different regions, genders and social groups. The inter-state disparities in enrollment have increased over a period of time. Though the social disparities continue to be large, the disparities between gender groups are narrowing down. The state policies need to focus not only on expansion but also on equity in expansion. Some of the states like Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, etc, need to accord greater priority to higher education in the coming years.

In spite of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, a large number of differently-abled persons continue to exist on the margins of the society and have yet to fully benefit from participation in higher education. Initiation of special action plans in consultation with the stakeholders need to be ensured so that their concerns are adequately met. 

Indian higher education provided in its majority of institutions needs a boost in its quality. Some of the important factors influencing quality are infrastructure, teachers and the teaching-learning process. Many universities and affiliated colleges have poor infrastructural facilities and face severe shortage of qualified teachers. In general, around 40% of the teaching positions remain vacant in many institutions which is a cause of concern. Scaling of teachers in the university system should become a priority agenda for the country.

The UGC established External Quality Assurance (EQA) mechanisms to carry out accreditation through the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) in 1994, and the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) by the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) in the same year. Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) mechanisms have also been established at the institutional level. However, the progress in accrediting institutions is very slow in India and a majority of institutions are yet to be accredited. Recently, the UGC has stipulated regulations that accreditation is a pre-condition to become eligible for funds. Similarly, the AICTE has made accreditation by NBA mandatory for all technical institutions. The ministry has also introduced another quality initiative in September 2015 in the name of National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF). This framework is used for ranking universities and institutions based on nine broad parameters. Efforts need to be intensified to meet the expectations in this regard as a significant input towards qualitative transformation of education.

Quality of higher education basically determines the level at which our university system is functioning. It sets a basic benchmark for ensuring the quality of mind of the youth coming out of the university system and their capacity to generate knowledge commensurate with developments taking place globally. In addition, it also has to ensure parity with international systems of higher learning. There is a need to move through the milestones which still have to be covered in bringing us closer to the coveted achievements in higher education. 

Curriculum reform is at the heart of what happens to the young minds in enriching them with knowledge and values and inculcates in them a spirit of inquiry, courage to question, creativity, objectivity, problem solving skills, decision making skills and aesthetic sensibility. Updating of curricula in different subjects was undertaken in 2013 in Central universities but this exercise needs to be attended to periodically so that our students do not learn things which may have to be unlearnt later. It may be helpful in reviewing some basic concerns, namely: Do our curricula in different subjects match indigenous expectations and also match requirements of international competitiveness? Do our assessment and evaluation procedures go beyond recall of information embodied as content of different disciplines? To what extent have we become at home with Choice Based Credit System (CBCS)? What curriculum transactional approaches will shift the focus from only teaching to ensuring learning?

Good teaching is as important as good research. Proverbially, we have focused on assessment of performance of our academic faculty largely in terms of their research publications. The result of this has been that faculty and students develop greater interest in increasing the number of publications unmindful of what the publications contribute to knowledge. It has added to sub-standard research. There has to be much greater focus of the faculty to produce quality research which meaningfully contributes to the body of knowledge. 

While research is important as a prime function of a university, it is no less important that the primacy to excellence in teaching is also catapulted to its place of rightful dignity. Good research has a symbiotic relationship with good teaching. Academics who have established their credentials as good pedagogues should also be treated at the same level as good researchers. Therefore, some fresh thinking is called for, namely: Should there be incentives for good teaching as for research? What parameters will assess it? Should we move to student assessment of teachers? Should publications of faculty on innovations in teaching not have parity with research publications?

Patents of innovations, based on research accomplished in the universities, have not received the attention they deserve. Multi- and interdisciplinary research, cutting across disciplines and the departments of a university, is confined only to a few islands in the university system. How do we ensure that interdisciplinary research takes firm roots in the culture of our universities? Can individual universities undertake substantive research initiatives to address issues of critical national importance like renewable energy, community health, climate change and disaster management? We have been talking about the university-industry interface to give a boost to research and development (R&D) for long, but there is not much headway. How this interface works in other countries could be studied so that we can adopt/adapt international best practices to strengthen this interface in our national context.

Creating Global Alliance for Institutes for Research, Innovation and Technology Development needs serious attention. It is admitted that establishing global alliance is more feasible among institutions operating at the same frequency of intellectual productivity as their counterparts in other parts of the globe. The issues of raising standards of research, innovation and technology development within the country would require to be addressed at various levels to improve the possibility of their becoming partners of a global alliance. Institutions that have had a long and reasonably good academic culture of research and innovations too have been facing serious procedural problems such as lack of administrative support, delay in clearance of research proposals, timely release of funds and institutional monitoring of research needs. Most of our universities need to strengthen the support for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) related initiatives in order to encourage successful patenting as well as innovation in teaching and research. The problems which impede the intellectual output of the university system need to be mitigated for enhancing global partnership in higher education.

These are the long-standing concerns that have repeatedly been raised, debated and investigated in piecemeal manner with no end to problems faced by the ambivalent university system. The time is running out when the yesteryears’ fail-safe approach needs to be replaced by a shared understanding of the issues and the strategies to resolve them.   

The writer is former chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

AVOIDABLE CONTROVERSY OVER THE MOTERA STADIUM RENAMING

Pankaj Vohra

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By renaming the newly-built Motera stadium after Narendra Modi, the Gujarat Cricket Association and the state administration have created a totally avoidable controversy which could cause acute embarrassment to the Prime Minister. Many of the BJP’s opponents have been most critical of the fact that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose name was synonymous with the venue, has been insulted. On its part, the BJP has been at pains to clarify that the stadium was going to be one amongst many that would be part of the Sardar Patel sports complex. The Prime Minister is an iconic figure from the state but there are many amongst his own party colleagues who believe that places should not be named after living persons. If that was happening in the past, it was wrong and should not be repeated. Two mistakes do not constitute a right.

The entire matter has snowballed into a political battle where the BJP is claiming that Wankhede Stadium is named after a politician and so is Chepauk in Chennai which is now known as the Chidambaram Stadium. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru and Rajiv Gandhi ground in Hyderabad are other examples. This may be so but renaming any place is like erasing history. In New Delhi, most of the roads that existed in Lutyens’ zone were given a new identity. The Curzon Road, for instance, is now Kasturba Gandhi Marg and the Willingdon Crescent is called the Mother Teresa Crescent. Similarly, Irwin Hospital was rechristened as Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital and the Willingdon Hospital became the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Very few people may be aware that many years ago, even the famous Eden Gardens was briefly renamed as Ranji Stadium but the old name was restored. In Delhi, there was a huge uproar when the historic Ferozeshah Kotla was named as the Arun Jaitley stadium, something which my university senior and friend himself would not have supported, had he been alive. Ferozeshah Kotla should always remain Ferozeshah Kotla and like cricket venues around the world, should have stands named after famous cricketers. The bust that needed to have been put there should have been of Lal Amarnath, independent India’s first cricket skipper who used to spend most of his time watching and guiding youngsters at this place.

There are cricket lovers who would have been pleased to have Vinoo Mankad’s name associated with the Motera stadium. The late Indian allrounder was perhaps the greatest cricketer who hailed from Gujarat. We must learn to honour our sportspersons. Milkha Singh became a legend in his lifetime but never got his due. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, along with Bishen Bedi, E.A.S. Prassana and B.S. Chandrashekar, have been ignored for too long. Ajit Pal Singh was the most gifted hockey centre half of his time who led India to a monumental World Cup victory in 1975. Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone, P.T. Usha, Ashok Kumar, Rahul Dravid and Salim Durrani have inspired so many youngsters.

The main point is that if many wrongs were done during the Congress regime, the party is now bearing the consequences. Surely, the BJP does not want to emulate the Congress by replicating the mistakes. It would not like to land in a similar position ever. PM Modi is the most popular leader of the country. His contributions would be acknowledged by posterity and he would get due recognition in history.

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Women and the case of Sabarimala pilgrimage

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala has often found itself in the eye of a storm because of the ‘ban’ on women of reproductive age from entering the temple. The tradition needs to be scrutinised in detail to address certain misconceptions about it.

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Sabarimala is a pilgrimage centre in mid-east Kerala, dedicated to the deity Ayyappan. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and surrounded by eighteen hills, it is among the major pilgrimage centres in south India, and even in the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘Kumbh Mela’ of the South on account of the large number of devotees it attracts, numbering anywhere between 17 million and 50 million pilgrims annually. Lord Ayyappan has many temples dedicated to him in Kerala; nonetheless, the Sabarimala temple is perhaps the best known among them (Vaidyanathan, 1978).

THE FOUNDING MYTHS

Ayyappan is said to be the product of the union of Vishnu and Shiva, the two major foci of devotional Hinduism. Both gods are typically represented as male, so his birth through them requires a word of explanation. Shiva possessed a demon devotee called Bhasmasura, who, through severe penance, won a boon from Shiva which gave him the power to reduce anything to ashes by pointing his finger at it. Once he received this boon, Bhasmasura attempted to test it on Shiva himself. Shiva thus found himself running across the cosmos with the demon in hot pursuit. Vishnu decided to intervene and save Shiva. He, therefore, metamorphosed into a beautiful damsel by the name of Mohini (or ‘the Enchantress’) whose sight distracted Bhasmasura from his pursuit. Bewitched by her beauty, Bhasmasura wanted to please her. Mohini, then, induced Bhasmasura to learn a bit of dancing to win her over. In the course of these movements, she made him point his finger at himself which instantly reduced him to ashes, thereby saving Shiva (Vaidyanathan 1978, 21–22). The legend maintains that Ayyappan was the son which arose from the union of Vishnu—in the form of Mohini—and Shiva. This story can be found in the Puranas (Bhagavata Purana).

Thereafter the child was abandoned in the forest where he was picked up by the King of Palan, who brought him up as his own. At this point, the depredations of another demon by the name of Mahisi enter the narrative. It just so happens that it was Ayyappan’s destiny to slay this demon and at the age of twelve, Ayyappan confronted Mahisi and defeated it (Vaidyanathan 1978, 27). Out of the vanquished demon arose a beautiful damsel by the name of Panchambika (also known as Malikappurathamma), who had been condemned by a curse to the state of demonhood (Vaidyanathan 1978, 19–21). This beauty, now released from her curse, asked for Ayyappan’s hand in marriage (Vaidyanathan 1978, 28, and 46). He initially resisted her offer but then accepted the proposal on one condition: He would marry her only after there were no more petitioners left for him to take care of. Panchambika accepted the condition and still awaits him in a separate temple north of his.

According to this narrative, there are two main reasons why women of reproductive age do not visit the shrine of Ayyappan. The first is that women do not wish to dishonour the resolve of the ‘bride-to-be’ who awaits her groom, and the second is that they do not wish to offer any temptation to Ayyappan, who had decided to remain celibate while taking care of his petitioners. These explanations are important as they indicate that the reasons underlying the practice of women of reproductive age refraining from visiting the shrine of Ayyappan have nothing to do with menstrual taboos, as has often been suggested rather rashly (Sridhar 2018). To emerge now from the midst of tradition into the hopefully clear light of history, the adoption of Ayyappan by the King of Palan is assigned by devotees to the period between 1105 and 1121 (Sridhar 2018, 47).

THE PILGRIMAGE

The people who undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage may belong to any faith or caste and mingle unreservedly as pilgrims. In fact, they are all supposed to be in a state of Brahmanhood (Sridhar 2018, 50). Before embarking on the pilgrimage, there is a formal function at their residence where they put on a garland of tulsi or rudraksha, which will be worn for the full duration of the pilgrimage of at least 41 days. This ceremony is known as maladharam. During this period, the pilgrim leads an ascetic life which includes bathing regularly, eating sattvika food, abstaining from meat, drinks and drugs, and observing the life of a celibate. One also carries with oneself a holy bundle called irumudi which has two compartments: one reserved for the material needs for regular puja or offerings to be made to the deity, the other for holding personal items. As the pilgrimage starts, the pilgrim-to-be undergoes the ceremony called kettunira or ‘pali kettu’ (Sridhar 2018, 66). 

When the pilgrim arrives at the shrine, he has to climb the eighteen granite steps known as patinettampadi. It is said that “at no other temple is so much importance attached to the steps leading to the sanctum” (Sridhar 2018, 106). The devotees must fulfil two conditions in order to tread up the steps: (i) Observe the 41-day penance prescribed for the pilgrims, and (ii) carry the irumudi on their heads. These granite steps may be used only twice: Once when approaching the sanctum with their irumudi, and when leaving the temple once the pilgrimage is over. Separate steps are provided for use on other occasions.

HISTORY OF RESTRICTION OF WOMEN

The preceding sections were meant to prepare us to deal with the main issue this article addresses, mainly, whether the prohibition of women of reproductive age to participate in the Sabarimala pilgrimage is discriminatory.

The first thing to inquire into is the history of this restriction to discuss the question comprehensively, as there is considerable misunderstanding surrounding the issue. A respected Indian scholar Rajeev Bhargava recently asserted during the course of the Hindu Huddle of 2019 in Bengaluru that the restriction was first imposed in 1991 by the High Court of Kerala and that the restriction imposed by the judgement of the court could always be removed by the judgment of another (superior) court (The Hindu, 2019).

This creates the impression that the issue surrounding the restriction is merely a legal and recent matter. However, the material presented in this article indicates otherwise. Let us examine the antiquity of this restriction by moving backwards in history.

It was just noted that, according to Professor Rajeev Bharagava, this restriction goes no further than 1991. This was the year in which the High Court gave its decision on the public interest litigation (PIL) filled on 24 November 1990 by S. Mahendran, the secretary of the WMA Library in Buzhavathu, Changanassery and supported by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Ayyappa Sewa Sangham (S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore, 1991). It is worth noting that he was prompted to make the application upon seeing a photograph in the Janmabhoomi Daily newspaper on 19 September 1990 in which the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika was seen conducting the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at the Sabarimala temple in the presence of her daughter, the mother of the child, who was apparently within the reproductive age bracket of 10 to 50 years of age (Nair, 2018). This clearly shows that the evidence of this restriction can be moved from 1991 to 1990 and even beyond it, as the petition was filed on the basis of the perception than an existing restriction being violated.

The Kerala High Court, in acting on the PIL examined the then Sabarimala temple thantri, or high priest, Sri Neelakandaru, on 5 April 1991. In the course of this examination, the thantri asserted before the Division Bench that “women belonging to the 10 to 50 age group were prohibited from entering the temple even before 1950” (Rajagopal, 2016). This means that the evidence for the existence of the tradition concerning the restriction can be moved backwards not only from 1991 to 1990 but further to 1950.

That the restriction was in place even earlier is suggested by the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States carried out by Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner, two lieutenants of the Madras Infantry, and published by the then Madras government in two volumes in 1893 and 1901. The survey was, however, completed earlier in 1820, after nearly five years of research and refers to the restriction as follows: “Old women and young girls may approach the temple, but those who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life are forbidden to approach [it].” It is, therefore, clear that the restriction was already in place in the early years of the 19th century (Rajagopal, 2016).

According to historian M.G. Sasibhooshan, the ban was an “unwritten law for decades” (Press Trust of India, 2018). This seems to be a reasonable assumption, although we have no solid evidence as to how far back it can be traced. The High Court of Kerala eventually concluded that “the usage was prevalent from time immemorial” (The News Minute, 2018).

We take up next the questions of exceptions to this rule which have been cited to challenge the authenticity of the tradition. Five such exceptions have been discussed in the literature of the subject and pertain to cases involving (i) Devaswom Commissioner (Shrimati) Chandrika, (ii) Tamil actress Jayashree, (iii) Kannada actress Jayamala, (iv) T.K.A. Nair and (v) the Queen of Travancore. The first example relates to the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika, which initially prompted the litigation in 1990. She conducted the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at Sabarimala in the presence of her daughter. Although she and her granddaughter fell outside the reproductive age bracket, the same could not be said of her daughter. The next case to consider is the claim that a Tamil film-song called Nambinal Keduvathillai, which was shot at the temple in 1986, featured women of reproductive age on the famous ‘eighteen steps’ leading to the deity. Jayashree was one of the featured actresses at the temple (The News Minute, 2018). Then comes the case of the Kannada actress Jayamala, who has claimed to have touched the idol of Lord Ayyappan in the temple when she was 27 (Press Trust of India, 2018). The fourth case pertains to the putative restriction being broken in 1939, when, according to T.K.A. Nair, former advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his choroonu (the first meal-eating ceremony for children) was performed at the Sabarimala temple when he was sitting on his mother’s lap, facing the deity. He repeated this claim several times on public television (The News Minute, 2018). Also, in 1939, the Maharaja(King) of Travancore visited the temple accompanied by his Maharani (Queen) in connection with the choroonu ceremonies. It is clear, however, that this could have been a case of royal privilege being exercised (Nair, 2018).

These five instances seem to represent special cases or exemptions. In the first case, the person involved was the very commissioner of the board which ran the Sabarimala temple. In the next two cases, film actresses are involved, who could perhaps claim special access on account of the exigencies of filming. One should keep in mind the Indian obsession with films and film heroes and heroines, and especially with their glamour. Similarly, the obviously high status enjoyed by Nair’s family perhaps explains the privilege enjoyed by him, and of course, the Queen represented royalty. Moreover, in relation to the last case, historian M.G. Shashibooshan claims to have photos of the Queen of Travancore’s visit to the temple taken by her son, indicating that she did, in fact, stop before the eighteen steps (The News Minute, 2018).

These cases suggest that the ban was not strictly observed in the latter half of the 20th century, rather than that it did not exist. One would require more evidence to conclude that the cases of the presence of women at Sabarimala, noted above, do not represent exceptions to the rule, but instead constitute proof of the very non-existence of the tradition placing a restriction on women.

This is part one of a two-part article.

The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.

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