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Is Pegasus controversy a toolkit to defame India?

When the state has various mechanisms to know activities of individuals that could be a threat to the country, why should it resort to illegal spying? If India is safe today and it has not witnessed terrorist activities that marked the earlier regimes, it is because of the strong intelligence network.

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Is it not true that vested foreign powers are keen to destabilise India? Did The New York Times not seek to recruit a journalist who would be anti-establishment and anti-Modi? Is it not true that Amnesty International was violating the law of the land, and when asked to explain and comply, it ran away?

If a news report comes out a day before Parliament’s Monsoon session is set to begin and the next day opposition parties try to disrupt Parliament claiming that the rights of private individuals have been violated by the State, one is bound to doubt the intention behind such a story. Naturally, there would be closer scrutiny by the State and unbiased people about the authenticity of the report and the intentions.

This explains why Union Home Minister Amit Shah said “disrupters and obstructers would not be able to derail India’s development trajectory”. “Disrupters are global organizations that do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress. People of India are very good at understanding this chronology and connection,” he said and assured that the Modi Government would continue to work for national welfare.

The story that first appeared in India was carried by a website that has earlier too published stories that have not been credible. This story was published in collaboration with 16 other international publications, including The Washington Post and The Guardian, which were media partners to an investigation carried out by Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories and rights group Amnesty International.

The so-called investigation conducted by the Amnesty security team found a leaked database of 50,000 phone numbers which the reports said was of the NSO and target for surveillance using Pegasus spyware developed by Israel’s NSO. This also included potential 300 targets that were Indians and included politicians even from the ruling BJP, journalists, and activists.

The claim was that the data was leaked from the NSO server but the NSO had denied having any such data. It said: “The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources…After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report. Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims.” The NSO even threatened a defamation suit.

Analysis of the source of such reports would further establish understanding of the entire controversy. The source of the investigation is Forbidden Stories (FS) and Amnesty (AI). The FS, which claims to champion independent journalism, has become a tool of propaganda by the West and has backed leftist viewpoints in the entire world.

It is difficult to believe the FS claims that its activities are not affected by the ideology of its donors. One of the donors is Luminate founded by Omidyar group. Luminate holds that Illiberal democracies’ are emerging and civil society is under attack. It has lamented the rise of nationalism and polarization of communities. Scroll.in is supported by the Omidyar group.

One of the donors is the Open Society Foundation of George Soros whose antipathy for India is well known. He has lamented the rise of nationalist governments across the globe. He has criticized the Indian Prime Minister and his policy on Jammu and Kashmir. He has described the actions of the Modi Government as the “biggest and most frightening setback” to the survival of open societies worldwide.

Amnesty story in India is rather well known. Its accounts were frozen by the Indian Government in 2020 after it was found that it violated the FCRA. It opened business entities in India and used the FDI route to fund its activities. When caught it raised the bogey of the witch hunt.

The Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has claimed that he was a victim of Pegasus. Some private photographs of Bezos were leaked which became the reason for his divorce that cost him Rs 3 lakh crore.

So, it is quite possible that all conspired to defame NSO and Pegasus and the countries that could possibly be linked. They could kill many birds with one stone. Paint some regimes as violators of Human Rights and individual liberty, paint Pegasus as the enemy of privacy of individuals and club a vibrant democracy like India with not-so-democratic regimes and paint the country’s image in a bad light.

Let us focus our attention on India. Many are unhappy with India’s growing clout and assertion. There were many foreign NGOs that worked unfettered without bothering to abide by the law of the land. Amnesty is not the only one. Greenpeace Organization had to close many of its India offices since foreign donations were stopped for violating Indian laws.

Of the 22,400 NGOs registered under the FCRA, the registration certificates of more than 20,600 were cancelled since 2011 for violating various provisions of the FCRA. Most were deregistered due to non-filing of annual returns which is mandatory as per law. The Government simply wanted to make NGO operations more transparent and accountable. Who gave the money and why and whether the money was used to serve that purpose? This intended to check siphoning and diversion of funds for other activities. These FCRA NGOs received more than Rs 58,000 crore in donations in the year 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The lobbies acting against India have an axe to grind. Such stories based on fiction— I call it fiction because you don’t need much brain to prepare such a list— intends to create an optics that India is intolerant and is violating the right of private individuals. After this, the lobbies would call on US Senators and representatives of European countries and the UK and ask them to issue Statements condemning India’s so-called attempt to muzzle the press and on the issue of their perception of violation of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, AI has come out with a curious explanation. It has claimed that it never said that the recently leaked list of phone numbers was specifically a list of numbers targeted by the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. It merely said that this is a list of numbers on which the NSO clients might like to spy on. This proves that the list was designed by FS and AI and dished out to select media outlets to sensationalize.

Those who had calculated that this would be India’s Watergate moment forcing the Prime Minister and the Government to resign were dejected that like many other arsenals this too failed to defame the Indian Prime Minister. This was a dangerous game plan. The entire controversy appears to be more like a toolkit to defame India and the Modi Government. Democracy like India has been clubbed with countries that India would not like to be compared with. India has been the target of many funders of FS and also AI and other international NGOs that have huge clout but they have failed to browbeat the Indian Government.

While the entire opposition could not hide its elation at something they calculated would bring the Prime Minister on its knees, the Government came up with a factual clinical response. “No unauthorized interception took place”, the Government asserted. The “sensational story” a day before the Monsoon session of Parliament cannot be a coincidence, India’s new IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the Lok Sabha. “Global expose of alleged hacking in India, using Israeli spyware Pegasus, is an attempt to malign Indian democracy and its institutions”.

He asked all parliamentarians to examine facts and pointed out that the consortium spoke of a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers but the presence of a number in the list did not mean that the device was targeted. He suggested technical analysis on the phone numbers to know whether these phones were compromised using any spyware.

Although many opposition leaders tried to present this as a serious violation of the right to privacy, the Government refused to set-up an inquiry, and rightly so. A mere report based on conjectures cannot be the basis of an investigation unless we want India to be on perpetual inquiry spree.

If the government says it has not done anything illegal, the best way for those, if they have proofs of being snooped upon using spyware, is to get their phones examined followed by lodging of an FIR if the accusations are true. This would lead to investigation and help the police to reach the truth. Hacking is a crime and it must be dealt so. As of now, none have come forward saying that they are giving their phones for investigation.

The investigation should be done, if or not the story was used as a toolkit to malign the Indian Government. Whether certain organizations contacted Indian parliamentarians asking them to raise the issue? Whether some parliamentarians were aware of such a story coming up anytime soon? This would establish if the pandemonium was a spontaneous or well-crafted result of the toolkit.

Indian Government came out with a strong response when it pointed out to vibrant democracy in India and its zeal to defend the Right to Privacy which has been dubbed a fundamental right by the Supreme Court. The Government has introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, and the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to protect the personal data of individuals and to empower users of social media platforms, a Statement from the IT ministry said.

Critics have often asked the Government to clarify if it was a client of the NSO? Is it important? If the Government has clarified the issue should be allowed to rest unless one has proof to the contrary. Who are the people interested in knowing this? The NSO may have sold the spyware to so many countries, some of which are very hostile to India. Is it not possible that one of these have tried to play mischief if at all such a thing has happened?

Those advocating investigation have not found much traction among people since Indians by and large do not mind spying by the State to keep themselves safe. Mahatma Gandhi had said pubic figures should not have private lives and their actions should be open to scrutiny. Actually, people are having the last laugh at those claiming privacy rights.

This produced desperation as evidenced in Trinamul Rajya Sabha MP Shantanu Sen snatching the paper from the hands of IT Minister Vaishnaw, when he was going to read out from that on the Pegasus controversy. He was rightly suspended for the rest of the Monsoon session for this unruly behaviour.

Chanakya who is credited with conceptualizing State and its functions had asserted that the State must have a strong network of loyal spies to secure the State against vested interests. This was essential to curb political corruption, to prevent instability due to machinations by vested interests, and to ward off both internal and external security threats. Who would oppose this? Technology has replaced or come as powerful tool to carry on the activities that would keep the State safe and stable.

When the State has various mechanisms to know activities of individuals that could be a threat to the country, why should the State resort to illegal spying. If the country is safe today and it has not witnessed bomb blasts and major terrorist activities that marked the earlier regimes, it is because of the strong intelligence network. Terrorist modules have been caught whether in West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh before they could produce collateral damage by their actions.

Violation of the right to privacy by the State under exceptional circumstances is small price citizens pay to be safe and secure. The Government must keep them safe and enable them to pursue their dreams. The State needs to be successful 100 per cent every time to prevent any terrorist or such incidents. Terrorists need to be successful only once.

Rather than trying to shoot through the shoulders of others either as an accomplice or a victim, opposition leaders should do well to participate in the process of enacting privacy law that can be basis of similar legislations in other countries.

The writer is the 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’. Views expressed are writer’s personal.

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Opinion

The fault, dear Bollywood, is not in our stars, but in our content

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The performance at the box office of both Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan has been underwhelming to say the least. Producers, distributors, actors, cinema owners, everyone connected to the film industry in one way or the other are lamenting the successive box office failures of Bollywood productions. Star power seems not to matter anymore. A little while ago Ranveer Singh’s Jayeshbhai Zordar, Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera, and even Tiger Shroff’s Heropanti all fell by the wayside.

If you stop to think of it though, in a way, this could be a long overdue and very good lesson for the film industry because it must learn that in order to survive it has perforce to improve its content and not rely unduly on star power. Content in cinema includes choreography, screenplay, dialogue, direction, editing, proper casting and many other things, but what really matters can perhaps be summed up in one word: storytelling.

Nasiruddin Shah’s wife, the actor Ratna Pathak spoke last month, in an interview published in the Hindustan Times about the star system as it had existed in the seventies. According to her it was an obnoxious system ‘where the content of films was driven by the star involved and not by the idea of telling a story.’ She also spoke of how many stars were poor performers but were nonetheless cruising along. In an earlier era, directors like Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan had held sway who saw a movie star as the carrier of a story and not the other way around.

Now we see the star system crumbling, slowly but surely. Actor Salman Khan also interviewed recently stated that he had been hearing talk about the collapse of the star system for decades now, but it wasn’t something that was going to happen. Stars, he maintained, would always exist. That may be so, but they will hereafter no longer command the kind of position in cinema that they have commanded till now. Some sort of balance will need to be restored if Bollywood is to survive. In Salman’s own case his inclusion in a film by no means guarantees box office success. In fact, his films have bombed time and again the most recent one being the unwatchable Dabangg 3.

In terms of timing, it is perhaps no coincidence that the actor Ranveer Singh decided to take off all his clothes and do a shoot in the nude last month. He went the Full Monty and although those pictures were not put on social media as they would offend censorship guidelines, apparently the fully nude pictures were circulating on WhatsApp.

When you reach a certain kind of stardom, it is easy enough to get people to endorse whatever you do. Praise came from various quarters about how Ranveer is entitled to do whatever it is he wishes to do as part of his creative self-expression. Wife Deepika Padukone too approved his decision, as his spouse and possibly also in the light of her own revealing performance in her latest film Gehrayian.

The fact that he has done a shoot in the nude now, and not some other time, may have something to do with the fact that his most recent film Jayesh Bhai Jordar went phuss at the box office. So Ranveer, tossing and turning from the snide remarks and taunts that would have inevitably followed, needed to do something to erase public memory of that flop and replace it with something else more noteworthy. A nude photo-shoot may have, to him, appeared to be the simplest and easiest thing to do.

Why was this lesson not taught to Bollywood earlier? One way of analysing this is to say that all of us in India need an entertainment fix once a week and till a few years ago there was no alternative to the big screen. Marx said famously that religion was the opium of the masses, which may well be true, but in India cinema also qualified as an alternative escape from the humdrum monotony of daily life. Everyone in the world knows of India’s obsession with cricket and the movies.

There was television of course, but it wasn’t really such an immersive experience and moreover most serials targeted the housewife with ‘saas bahu’ conflicts, not such an engaging subject matter for a male audience. What changed over the past few years, especially after corona, was the arrival of the OTT platform with its numerous web series, docudramas and cinema made for exclusive release on Netfix, Sony Liv, Zee 5, Voot or some such channel.

As a consequence, the cinema watching audience became more discerning and more demanding. It took the star struck Indian audience some time to get used to better content, but once that happened it wasn’t so easy to lure them back to the cinema halls. For one thing it would take an hour to drive to the movie hall in the traffic and sometimes as much time to find parking. A middle-class man realises that quite apart from spending money on movie tickets, he may need to spend over a thousand rupees on snacks such as popcorn, nachos, burgers what have you, for himself and his family. No, if it wasn’t good cinema, it was better to stay at home, watch the cricket or a Netflix series or film and get the wife or cook to rustle up some fritters or pakoras. What’s not to like there?

Will Bollywood change? Can Bollywood change? No question, it can and it will. Money talks as nothing else can. Star power itself was built on the making of money, and that power will lessen and dissipate once it is clear, as it should be, by now, that star power alone cannot make a movie succeed at the box office anymore. The times, they are a changing, as Bob Dylan sang.

Rajesh Talwar is the author of 34 books across multiple genres. He has worked for the United Nations for over two decades across three continents in numerous countries.

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Opinion

A LONG ROAD AHEAD FOR CONGRESS BEFORE 2024

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The All India Congress has been aggressively pursuing its agenda against the Centre particularly on price rise. The party has been staging protests on the issue at the block level. There is a scheduled national-level rally on the issue on 28 August. Protesting against price rise is fine since the issue is of concern to the common man. But the big question is would the Congress be able to effectively use the issue against the Modi government.

Congress has raised such issues earlier too, but it has failed to take its campaigns on those issues to a logical conclusion. In not too distant a past, for instance, the party staged protests across many states against the three farm laws, which now stand repealed. In fact, it was the Congress which began protests against the farm laws, with Rahul Gandhi hitting the streets. However, the party lost the plot and the movement was hijacked and party found itself sidelined.

Now coming back to the price rise, the Congress has not raised the issue the first time. Eight months back, the party organised a national-level rally at Jaipur on 12 December 2021. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot put in all efforts to make the rally a success. If the huge crowds the rally drew were any yardstick, the rally was undoubtedly successful. Addressing the rally, Rahul Gandhi slammed the BJP saying that he was a Hindu but not a Hindutvavadi. His comments put the party in a tight spot as the BJP launched an all-out offensive on Hindutva, relegating the issue of inflation to irrelevance. The Saffron brigade won assembly elections in four states hands down. The party has once again made inflation a major issue to corner the BJP government at the centre. But nobody can deny the fact that Congress raked the issue, perforce, again to deflect the attention from the investigation in the National Herald money laundering case by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), in which the ED had summoned both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia for interrogation. The Congress staged country-wide protests against the ED interrogating the Gandhis. However, the party realised that it may boomerang on it, as the BJP retaliated by attacking the party on parivarvad (familial nepotism) and corruption. The party, however, managed to deflect the criticism by invoking issues like price rise and unemployment and putting them on its agenda in a forceful manner.

By bringing issues of nepotism and corruption back in public discourse in his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already set the agenda without naming the Gandhi family. It is clear that the BJP would once again take on the Opposition on these twin planks in coming elections. It is also clear from what Modi said that whosoever is involved in corruption will have to face the consequences. This stance may be worrisome not only for the Congress but also for leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Tejaswi Yadav, for nobody knows when the ED would come knocking on their doors.

But there is a silver lining for the Congress. It has been able to put pressure on the BJP government on an issue like inflation, which affects the commoners like nothing. The Congress was also able to put up a united front while staging protests against price rise and unemployment. The Gandhis hit the streets to lead party workers and leaders from the front. Encouraged by the response it has got from workers across the states, the party has drawn an ambitious plan to reach out to the people. The party will begin its “Bharat Jodo Yatra” on 7 September the success of which will depend on the support it receives from the common people. But if the party keeps pressing the issues it has been championing in recent times it is bound to find popular support among the masses, which may help catapult the Congress to become a force to reckon with in 2024.

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Opinion

Nitish’s move lacks credibility

Many have tried to depict Nitish Kumar’s as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU). But this is far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to take a final shot at the top slot-the Prime Minister of India.

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Nitish Kumar

Nitish Kumar’s move to jettison trusted ally, the BJP, and align with forces he till recently considered inimical to the interest of Bihar, shows the new low in political gerrymandering. He has demonstrated to one and all that he cannot be trusted with words and his self-interest would govern his actions.

His opportunistic swing between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) reminds one of the hilarious Aaaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon that happened in 1960s and showed how personal interest guides political moves. Nitish is being described by many as ‘Paltu Ram’ of Indian politics which refers to a person known for changing sides without the slightest of moral compunctions.

At the first assembly election in Haryana in 1967, Gaya Ram had won as an independent candidate. Immediately after the results were out, he joined the Congress but within few hours he joined the United Front. The same day by the evening, he rejoined the Congress. Within nine hours he shifted loyalty thrice. Congress leader Rao Birendra Singh while addressing the media said, “Gaya Ram Ab Aaya Ram hai”.

Ever since then, frequent shift of political loyalty had become a joke for those who could not be trusted. The anti-defection law that seeks to prevent political defections is silent on the situation created by Nitish Kumar. This sobriquet of Paltu Ram for Nitish Kumar was given by none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav when Kumar walked out of the JDU-RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption by RJD leaders, particularly Tejashwi Yadav. “He has neither principles nor ideology but only greed for power”, Prasad had said.

Both the BJP and the JDU had contested elections in alliance in 2020 and Nitish became chief minister even when he had much fewer seats (43) than the BJP that had won 74 assembly seats. He has sunk and the alliance and joined forces with adversaries- the RJD and others. This cannot by any stretch of imagination be described as something that people of the State would want. People know that the mandate for the NDA was largely due to image and massive campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the personal guarantee he gave about Bihar witnessing unprecedented development under double Engine NDA Government.

Many critics and analysts have tried to depict Kumar’s exit from the NDA as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU) or create trouble for the chief minister. But these are far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to play a larger role in Indian politics and to take a final shot at the top slot- the Prime Minister of India in 2024.

One should not forget that he had similar ambition in 2013. On 16 June he had snapped ties with the BJP when the party made Narendra Modi its campaign chief for 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Nitish had given the most venomous statement when Modi was subsequently named the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. “People of the country will not tolerate or accept a leader whose idea and policy is divisive” Kumar had said.

At the back of his mind somewhere, Kumar may have imagined that the BJP wound not get a majority and a hung parliament could throw up a possibility of someone else (read Nitish) to become the Prime Minister. If wishes had wings horses could fly. The entire country witnessed Modi’s personal charisma and trust translate into massive majority for the BJP. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014.

This happens if one stays on one post (here chief minister) for a long time and is unable to do much for development of the State. You cannot blame others if the State has failed to catch up with other more developed States of India. With nothing challenging to do, one gets bored and starts looking for a new role. This is more so when you are on the wrong side of age. He will be 73 when the country would witness Lok Sabha elections.

Anyone in Nitish Kumar’s situation would sense a great opportunity since the Congress is in disarray and regional leaders such as Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, or other players such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Sharad Pawar or other leaders are not taken seriously as a national player. Nitish Kumar who has won his image of ‘Sushashan Babu’ in alliance with the BJP may rake up Bihari pride to try to win most of the 40 Lok Sabha seats of the State.

Till now Nitish Kumar’s political moves in Bihar have paid dividends to him at the personal level. He has dumped allies with impunity and has retained his chief minister’s chair. But to try to judge Kumar from the prism of political morality would be wrong. He has created his own morality which is wherever he goes is the winning side and whatever justification he gives is the new morality in politically polarised Bihar.

Thus far so good, but no further. Nitish has played his last gamble. He has dumped a trusted partner that did not stake claim to the chief minister’s post despite winning more seats than the JDU. If Nitish had any sense of political morality he would not have become the chief minister and asked the BJP to nominate its own candidate. This is greatness of Modi that he forgot the personal angst of Kumar against him and supported his cause when he left the RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption and later when the JDU got less number of seats in 2020.

There are some who say that the BJP asked Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan to field candidates against the JDU to give the BJP a decisive edge. While the results may be true, it is a far-fetched conclusion that there was any such understanding between the two parties. The BJP did not share dais or any political platform with Chirag Paswan and even after he lost the polls in Bihar, he was not accommodated in the NDA government at the Centre. Kumar should look at his own reasons to know why Chirag opposed him so bitterly. The BJP did not change tack and stuck to its commitment that Nitish Kumar would be the chief minister.

Some critics often compare the situation with Maharashtra and argue that Nitish feared that the BJP would engineer the fall of his government. This is ridiculous. In Maharashtra the mandate in 2019 was for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance to form the Government. The alliance had won 161 assembly seats in a house of 288 of which the BJP had won on 105 seats, the Shiv Sena on 56. Other seats were won by the National Congress Party (54) and the Congress (44). If people’s verdict was to be honoured Devendra Fadnavis should have become the chief minister.

But Shiv Sena ditched the mandate and refused to be in the alliance unless it was given the post of the chief minister. After a long stalemate, the Shiv Sena formed an alliance government with the NCP and the Congress. The BJP called it betrayal of the mandate but could not do anything. Later, many Shiv Sainiks realized the folly of the decision and they took command of the Shiv Sena and came back to the BJP. The BJP’s decision to keep the alliance was obvious when it gave the chief minister’s post to Eknath Shinde and asked Fadnavis to become the Deputy. There was nothing unethical in it. The original mandate was for this alliance and political opportunists had made an unholy alliance that lacked ideological coherence. So far as Shinde is concerned, the Shiv Sena would decide who is their leader and not the BJP.

One can argue why the BJP supported Nitish Kumar when it split with partners with whom it had contested polls in alliance. The case of Bihar is completely different. Nitish came to be known as ‘Sushashan Babu’ in the company of the BJP. The vote in 2015 was largely in the name of Nitish Kumar and his image even when he contested against the BJP. So when he decided to part ways with the RJD on the issue of corruption, the BJP had few choices than to support him in the name of stability and good governance.

The present move of Nitish is not backed by sound logic. The BJP leadership was in touch with him and he had apparently given assurance that everything was all right. The BJP could not have disturbed its own government. Nitish had complete backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There was no justification and no provocation. If you reject the possibilities, the only possible reason is Kumar’s ambition to take a shot at the top job by exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition.

Besides the fact that Modi is going to be there for a long time to come and that he is the most popular leader in the country, Kumar has been exposed badly. The RJD has no love lost for him and when their parting had taken place in 2017 it had turned bitter with all members of Lalu Prasad’s family abusing Kumar for back-stabbing the RJD.

The Machiavellian brand of politics that Kumar has specialized makes strange bedfellows. Enemies become friends and friends become enemies with both showing that they are ready to forget the past and keen to rewrite a new future but none forgets. One point of time, the RJD was symbolic of the jungle raj in Bihar. It is clear that Kumar is no longer worried about people of Bihar. People would be scared of this alliance and may not bite the dust.

So far as the BJP is concerned, it has got a golden opportunity to strengthen its organisation and go to the people for a full mandate. This is likely to bring new energy to the party that has been working tirelessly to give representation to all sections of the society. This is a redefining moment for Bihar politics.

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Opinion

INDIA’S TRYST WITH DESTINY CONTINUES 75 YEARS AFTER INDEPENDENCE

A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free.

Pankaj Vohra

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The time has once again come to renew the pledges made by our freedom fighters as the country celebrates the 75th year of our independence on Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi shall address the Nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort. India has come a long way since Jawaharlal Nehru gave his passionate speech, `the tryst with destiny’ to mark the end of the British rule. Thereafter many Prime Ministers have used the occasion to present their vision of the way ahead and each one of them has contributed in some form or the other to take us forward. It is also a time to remember the martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and many more, who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives so that they could break the shackles of slavery. The immense contribution of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj as also the manner in which those who started the Sepoy revolt in 1857 even though they paid a heavy price, can never be forgotten and should never be forgotten either. There are always lessons in History also in every struggle. One of the speeches I remember was made by Indira Gandhi who said that till the time there was poverty, hunger and disease, real Independence cannot be achieved. This continues to be a daunting task and though the present government appears to be doing the right things regarding development, a lot more needs to be done in this huge and vast country where people have aspirations and hope from those who govern them. Am reminded of Khalil Gibran, who wrote that they say that if you see a slave sleeping, do not wake him, lest he is dreaming of freedom. I say that if you see a slave sleeping, wake him and explain to him the meaning of freedom’’. A grateful Nation should recall the services of millions of freedom fighters and leaders who participated in movements of various kinds, some peaceful and some not so peaceful. They had only one objective that was to see their country free. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation provided direction to the masses when they needed it the most though he died shortly after Independence, a victim of hate politics. It was a time when the country was also trying to come to terms with the unfortunate Partition brought about by ambitious politicians who helped the British to divide the Nation. This partition could have easily been avoided had our leaders stood their ground without allowing Mohmmad Ali Jinnah to have his sinister way. India is today fortunate that it is a democracy like many other great countries and has an elected government by the ordinary people. This is in contrast with dictatorial regimes in many parts of the world or monarchies where freedom of every kind is curtailed and crushed by insecure rulers. Therefore, we must all count our blessings and think positively. John Kennedy’s famous words, often repeated by Nehru come to my mind, “Do not ask what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country’’. Jai hind.

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Opinion

25 years of Vishakha Guideline: Still a long way to go

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On 13 August 1997, the three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice JS Verma, Justices Sujata V. Manohar and Justice B.N. Kirpal, pointed out the ‘Legal Vacuum’ and thus the lack of rule of law when it comes to protecting a woman at the workplace, which is still predominantly patriarchal in nature. The social milieu still promotes a culture of silence among women. The bench gave the historical judgment “Vishakha v State of Rajasthan” (AIR 1997 SC 3011), famously known as the Vishakha Guideline.

The historical judgement is a landmark on various counts. First, it made the International Convention, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as the basis for national legislations paving the way for progressive laws and state accountability towards the international commitments. Second, it recognised specific vulnerability of women at workplace and the gap in existing laws, which it termed as “legal vacuum”. Third, the bench did not restrict itself but creatively used the powers conferred on the Supreme Court under Article 141 and 142 and laid down elaborate guidelines to deal with the menace of sexual harassment against women at workplaces.

The judgment remains to be a landmark as it elaborated the beauty of the Indian Constitution towards protecting the rights of individuals under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 21, and the responsibility on the Indian State underArticles 51(c), 73, 253 and Seventh Schedule.. The apex court referred to the above provisions which envisage judicial intervention for eradication of this social evil and pronounced the following,

“In view of the above, and the absence of enacted law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse, more particularly against sexual harassment at work places, we lay down the guidelines and norms specified hereinafter for due observance at all work places or other institutions, until a legislation is enacted for the purpose. This is done in exercise of the power available under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement of the fundamental rights and it is further emphasised that this would be treated as the law declared by this Court under Article 141 of the Constitution.”

The guidelines were quite elaborate and specifically dealt with the following: duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places and other institutions; definition especially as to what constitute sexual harassment; preventive steps; criminal proceedings; disciplinary action; complaint mechanism; complaints committee; workers’ initiative; awareness; and where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider. It also stated that the Central/state governments are requested to consider adopting suitable measures including legislation to ensure that the guidelines laid down by this order are also observed by the employers in private sector.

However, it took almost 15 years for the Parliament to convert the guidelines into a law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in 2013. The moot question is why the legislature took so long to frame the law. Why is it that issues of gender continue to be given least priority by the Parliament even in times of an awakened human rights global world? Another illustrative example of the lethargy in legislating is seen evidently in the case of sexual crime victims of child marriage. The 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter, Independent Thought vs. Union of India [(2017) 10 SCC 800], where the top Court read down the Exception 2 of Section 375, Indian Penal Code (IPC), raising the age of Consent from 15 years to 18 years even for married girls at par with other girls. The same needs a formal amendment in the IPC, but even 5 years later the Government of India has not demonstrated any intent to make these changes. This is more so when the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was tabled in the Parliament, making corresponding changes in various laws, the required amendment in IPC was missing.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013or the POSH law has indisputably come as an empowering tool for several working women and has strengthened the confidence in the ‘second sex’ to fearlessly voice her concerns with dignity. Since 2013, there has been a paradigm shift in the cloud of shame shifting from the complainant woman to the male accused of this act. The 2013 law mandates each organization with more than 10 employees to have an internal committee and a policy on prevention, prohibition, and redressal of sexual harassment at workplace for women. Further the Ministry of Corporate Affairs through the Companies (Accounts) Amendment Rules, 2018, makes ‘Disclosure of compliance under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in the annual reports of private companies as mandatory. The businesses must be made accountable for ensuring adherence to human rights principles and these are must for an equitable growth and achieving the sustainable development goals 2030.

With 25 years of the law in place, it is time to fully recognise the issue at hand as a human rights issue and not one of gender. Prevention, as they say, is always better than cure and what best to practise this than now, after two and a half decades of the law in place.

Vikram Srivastava is an advocate and founder of Independent Thought and Leena Prasad is an advocate and Associate Director, Advocacy, Research, and Training. Udayan Care.

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Opinion

India at 75: The empowered woman

Women are a reflection of ethics, loyalty, decisiveness and leadership, says PM Narendra Modi.

Sanju Verma

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Among the many progressive measures by Prime Minister Modi, one that stands out for its sheer scale, size, reach and of course the manner in which it has revolutionized the lives of millions of Indian women, is the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY).Since inception, about 35 crore people have benefitted from total loans sanctioned, in excess of Rs 19 lakh crore. Of this 35 crore, over 70% of the beneficiaries are women, especially those belonging to the marginalised sections of the society. Similarly, cooking food,using a gas connection may not be a big deal for many but for the “eight crore-th” beneficiary of Modi’s Ujjwala scheme from Maharashtra, Ayesha Shaikh, getting a gas cylinder was nothing short of a major milestone.For this daily wager, Ayesha, who is a mother of five, from Ajanta village, the days of fetching dry wood from nearby areas for cooking on a humble ‘chulha’, billowing toxic smoke, are over.

India under PM Modi,has fully endorsed the United Nations in its “think equal, build smart, innovate for change’, motto, with regard to women empowerment. Now women have an opportunity to have permanent employment in the Indian Army and Indian Navy, something that was unthinkable earlier.

But if there is one thing that stirred the imagination of 1.4 billion people, more than anything else, it was PM Modi’s unabashed acknowledgement from the ramparts of the Red Fort, two years back,of how over 8000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras had provided around 5 crore sanitary pads at Re 1, to poor women in rural India. For Modi, an international leader of towering repute, to openly embrace and mainstream the issue of women hygiene,(menstruation) is not mere symbolism. By doing what he did, Modi sent a strong message,that for him, good governance is all about walking the talk, with no ifs and buts whatsoever.

From defining the nation’s first menstrual hygiene protocol, amending the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act of 1971,giving women reproductive rights over their bodies and increasing the fetal gestation period from 20 to 24 weeks, welcoming more women recruits in the NCC, which will now be extended to border and coastal areas, to criminalising the inhuman and unconstitutional practice of instant triple talaq and decision to increase marriageable age from 18 to 21 years for women, the Modi government has truly exhibited a bold, women friendly approach which is both mature and modern,and something,which no other government in post Independent India can dare boast of.

Banning commercial surrogacy which had led to mushrooming of illegal IVF and surrogacy clinics, was yet another bold move by the Modi government. According to the new laws, only married Indian couples, who have been together for a minimum of five years and have been deemed medically unfit by a doctor or practitioner to conceive children naturally,will be allowed to depend on a surrogate.

Women empowerment is not just about gender equality and gender justice. It also means more jobs, equal opportunities for growth and entrepreneurship. If there is one leader who has recognized women for what they are and who they are, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether it is providing free cooking gas via the famous PM Ujjwala Yojana ,or financial inclusion via PM Jan Dhan Yojana,or enabling women to leverage technology, a slew of schemes have been launched in recent years to empower women on the path of self reliance. Speaking of women empowerment, Mahila-E-Haat,a portal featuring 2000 products, is a bilingual online marketing platform that leverages technology to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, self-help groups (SHGs) and NGOs, to showcase their products and services.Among the many services provided by Mahila-E-Haat are, facilitating direct contact between the vendors and buyers and it is open to all Indian women above the age of 18.

The Modi government also launched the Mahila Shakti Kendra with presence in over 115 districts, to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition. The Modi government, few years back, also launched affordable “Working Women Hostels”, on a war footing, to ensure availability of safe and convenient accommodation for working women and single mothers, along with day-care facilities for their children, wherever possible in urban, semi-urban and rural areas.

Again, the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) scheme,is intended to benefit women who are in the age group of 16 years and above, across the country. The skills imparted include, but are not limited to, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, handlooms, tailoring, stitching, embroidery, zari, handicrafts, computers & IT-enabled services. Also,the Modi government’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative, is so much more than being just a mission statement, best exemplified by the surge in the sex ratio at birth (SRB) in Haryana, from 871 in 2015,to 914 in 2017, with districts like Panipat and Yamunanagar reporting SRB of 945 and 943 for every 1000 males. The increase in overall sex ratio is a combination of increased life expectancy of women and improvement in the sex ratio at birth or the number of female births for every 1000 male births. While the SRB last year rose to 929,the overall sex ratio stood at 1020 females for every 1000 males, with number of females exceeding number of males, for the first time ever. That again is a good sign. To cut a long story short, on every conceivable parameter, girls in India are far safer today than they were, say eight years back. Modi, is a truly progressive statesman with a liberated mindset; modern, sensitive, a thinking leader, who has uplifted scores of women by strengthening policy making tools, to deliver, where it matters most.

Sweeping amendments to the Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act of 2015, lowers the trial age for heinous crimes like rape and murder from 18 years, to 16 years. A 16-year-old will now be treated and punished like any other adult as per due process of law, under Sections 376 and 302 of the Indian Penal Code, which bodes well for young girls who are victims of sexual assault. Leftist cheerleaders who have been mocking the Beti Bachao campaign, would do well to know that the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, to facilitate the education of the girl child, has already reached out to more than 4 crore aspirational young women. Unarguably, however, the landmark achievement of the BJP government to further the cause of “Beti Bachao”, has been the over 11 crore toilets built in rural India under the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, scheme.

Again, India has over 73,000 startups, with at least 45% of them having women entrepreneurs. Over 15% of India’s 105 Unicorns have women as the founders and that number is rapidly growing. Out of 78 ministers post the cabinet expansion in July 2021, 11 in Modi’s cabinet today, are women. This is the highest number of women in the Union Council of Ministers in the last 17 years.

“Women empowerment is crucial to India’s growth. Days of seeing women as just ‘home makers’ have gone, we have to see women as nation builders”, is something Narendra Modi tweeted in January 2014,even before he became the PM and that tweet sums up the progressive mindset of the Modi government, in more ways than one.Most importantly,India’s 15th President, Droupadi Murmu,is the embodiment of how “naari shakti” in Modi’s India, is essentially about the ability to dream, the willingness to work hard and the determination to succeed, unwaveringly and undeterred. That Murmu is also the first tribal leader who is now India’s First Citizen, as India celebrates 75 years of independence, makes Murmu’s achievements even more notable. Suffice to conclude by saying that in Modi’s India,a Santhali woman from a remote village in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha,is today the proud occupant of Raisina Hill. That inspiring journey of Droupadi Murmu is also an ode to the farsightedness and astute vision of PM Modi,who remains one of the most popular leaders globally and for good reason.

Ms Sanju Verma is an Economist, National Spokesperson for BJP and Bestselling Author of “The Modi Gambit”.

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