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Time to Look and Act East through Bangladesh

Raising the bar of the India-Bangladesh economic and strategic relationship to the next
level can be a major contributing factor for success of the government’s ‘Act East’ policy




The Government of India Under then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao launched India’s ‘Look East’ policy in 1991, giving the much-deserved importance to the diplomatic and economic relations with countries lying to the east of India, especially the ASEAN and other Southeast Asian countries. On taking over as the Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi rechristened the policy as ‘Act East’ policy. It has often been interpreted as a policy looking beyond Asia to include countries like Australia and New Zealand.

The PM has often emphasised on the need to make the Northeast as the launch pad of India’s ‘Act East’ policy. It needs to be remembered that this policy did not come out of the blue. One of the many reasons was global geopolitical churning which happened during that period. With the fragmentation of the erstwhile Soviet Union, with whom India had strong strategic ties, India was left in a position where it had had no strategic support in the international arena. To add to the misery, its socialistic economy was in a shambles, to say the least. A realisation also dawned that relations with immediate neighbours are as important as with the global powers in the West.

With never-ending hostility between India and Pakistan and unsettled borders with China, importance of other neighbours became even more pronounced. It is also a fact that most of India’s neighbours except China are comparatively small countries that always perceive India as a “big brother” in the region. The Government of India has put in deliberate effort to bring comfort in relationship with its neighbours over the past decade by frequent interactions at all levels.

In order to exhibit the importance which India gives to its neighbours, Prime Minister Modi invited all heads of state of the SAARC countries for the swearing in ceremony of his cabinet in 2014 and all heads of BIMSTEC countries in 2019. Bangladesh is part of both the groupings and even the BIMSTEC secretariat is located in Dhaka which further reinforces the importance of the IndiaBangladesh relationship. All heads of ASEAN were the guests for Republic Day Parade on 26 January 2018. The joint statement at the end of that engagement amply stressed the equation between India and the countries of ASEAN grouping. They looked towards India as a fulcrum of power in the region to counter growing Chinese expansionism and establishment of rule of international law, especially in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, the US named the region IndoPacific to emphasise the role it perceives India to play in the region. It has gone to the extent of renaming the Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command.

One thing that needs to be understood while ‘Acting East’ is that China will always be an elephant in the room whenever we attempt to enhance our influence in the countries around India. Most of them like Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal also share borders with China. Another reason is the disproportionate economic muscle which China wields by which it can promise much larger investments and quicker decisions to implement the promised investments due to the system of governance they follow. No wonder we have been often checkmated by China on investments in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. China’s economic muscle beats our advantage of being a democracy.

India’s Look/Act East policy has been in vogue for almost three decades without tangible progress. Maybe this has been the preparatory stage till now, but the time has come for it to deliver results. It has also been experienced that decisions taken in multilateral forums like SAARC or BIMSTEC take much longer to fructify compared to execution of bilateral agreements.

A time has now come to accord priority to bilateral projects which can act as building blocks to realising larger goals of the declarations made at the summits of groupings like BIMSTEC. One country which stands out for this purpose is Bangladesh because, besides the historical and cultural ties which bind us, both countries are vibrant democracies that have fought fiercely for their independence as a joint cause before 1947 and then again in 1971. Bangladesh has been a reliable partner in helping India counter insurgency in Assam by handing over the ULFA leadership and not allowing them to use Bangladesh as a base. A time has come for India to stop worrying about the influx of Bangladeshis but encourage people-to-people contact, of course by mechanism which takes care of concerns of all stakeholders. Technology is a great facilitator in implementing policies related to human movement. This is not to discount the importance of relations with other neighbours but for sure Bangladesh is a natural partner with minimum complications in taking forward the relationship to the next level. 

In the present era, economic factors form the bedrock of diplomatic ties between two countries and are an important element of any strategic relationship. There is immense potential of economic and strategic cooperation between the two countries. Bangladesh is geographically neighbouring India from three sides with access to Bay of Bengal. On the other hand the Northeast is landlocked and separated from even Indian economic centres like Kolkata by Bangladesh. It is a well-known fact that prior to India’s independence from the British in 1947, there existed a well laid out multi-modal transportation system including the inland waterways which facilitated logistics and hence resulted in major economic activity between the Northeast and the eastern part of undivided India. This historical disaster of Partition can be set right by having seamless connectivity between eastern parts of India and the Northeast through Bangladesh which will result in economic benefits to people of both the countries.

Therefore, in order to implement the above thought, firstly, transit agreements to allow movement between eastern India and the Northeast through Bangladesh must be made possible by all modes of transport at the earliest; this will reduce cost of logistics substantially, thereby making the economies efficient and competitive. Secondly, India must access the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh ports to help the Northeast trade with other countries rather than depending on Indian ports. This will generate revenue for Bangladesh as also reduce logistics cost for trade originating from the Northeast. Thirdly, in order to take benefit from the above connectivity, the Northeast must be developed as a manufacturing hub to meet India’s dream of making the region the launch pad of India’s Act East policy. It is not economically viable to source goods from India’s hinterland and then export to Southeast Asian countries through the land route.

Fourthly, it would be prudent to establish joint export-oriented Special Economic Zones (SEZs) pooling the natural and human resources so that the synergy so generated can make the region a manufacturing hub competing with ASEAN economies. Both Indian and Bangladesh economies must operate to create a highly competitive global manufacturing hub which will be mutually beneficial to the people of both the countries. Last but not the least, to achieve the above, a synergised effort by the Central and state governments to bring the law and order situation to a level which facilitates economic activity is a necessity. Raising the bar of the India-Bangladesh economic and strategic relationship to the next level can be a major contributing factor for success of India’s Act East policy.

During 39 years of military service, Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu secured the apex appointment of Director General of Supplies & Transport of Army, headed a force of approximate 75,000 officers, JCOs, jawans and civilians deployed across India. He also served as the Director General of Information Technology of the Army. He is actively involved with think tanks such as USI, CLAWS, IDSA and ORF. The views expressed are personal.

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Priya Sahgal



Can the Opposition form a bloc without the Congress? NCP chief Sharad Pawar is said to be exploring this option, with or without Prashant Kishor’s blessings. It’s not too difficult to see the rationale behind such an exercise for the Congress party’s track record in taking on the BJP electorally has not been very good. Take a look at the recently concluded five Assembly seats—the one state where it was a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress, the latter lost even though the BJP was facing an anti-incumbency in Assam. And in states where the BJP faced a non-Congress party, it lost — West Bengal. It’s not that the BJP cannot be defeated but an electoral battle led by Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Uddhav Thackeray, Navin Patnaik, or even Nitish Kumar has a better success rate than a lone Congress campaign.

And as many analysts have pointed out that once the election is a national level one, then the fight naturally becomes one of Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi. And we all know how that one ends. Hence it makes sense to form a non-Congress, non-BJP front with two or three strong faces to take on the BJP and keep the Congress as a post-election option. Since Narendra Modi still retains his edge over any other leader pan-India, it makes sense not to put one face against him as that face will always fall short. However, the coalition has to be clear about its message. It is not enough to criticise the BJP but the Opposition also needs to be clear as to what alternative it is offering the voter.

Moreover, it will not be that easy to take the Congress out of the equation for there are around 195 seats where the Congress is pitted directly against the BJP; and this is the Achilles’ heel in any fight against the saffron party. As Sanjay Jha, former Congress spokesman, told me, the Congress needs to win at least 100 of these seats. If it doesn’t then the BJP’s number will be too huge for the regional (Opposition) parties to measure up to. Jha has a solution pointing out that all Congress needs to do is to focus on the low-hanging fruit instead of wasting its energies on Uttar Pradesh, a state which Rahul Gandhi has been focusing his energies on ever since he debuted in 2004. “In the last elections, the BJP won 175 seats of the 195 where Cong and BJP in a direct fight,” says Jha.

However, to be fair to Rahul Gandhi, he will probably be quite happy supporting any coalition that will take on the BJP without insisting on leading it. After all, if he is reluctant to lead his own party, then why would he insist on leading a coalition? One way to check this would be to insist that a non-Congress leader taking over as Chairperson of the UPA. Currently, Sonia Gandhi holds this post, but given the fact that she wants to step back from active politics, perhaps the post should go to another more active leader. Such as Mamata Banerjee? It is also clear that the fiery leader from West Bengal harbours national ambitions. And to be fair, from all the opposition leaders, her track record in taking on the BJP cannot be questioned.

While the general elections are still three years away, the focus is on the semi-finals which will be fought in Uttar Pradesh early next year and then Gujarat. In the first, the onus lies on another regional leader, Akhilesh Yadav to try and stop the BJP juggernaut while Gujarat has usually been a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress, but of late, the Aam Admi Party has expressed an interest in the state. With Kejriwal himself making routine appearances in Modi’s ‘karma bhoomi’, this will be an interesting battle to watch. And the results of both UP and Gujarat will bring with them markers for the 2024 general elections.

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Recalling unsung legacy of Syama Prasad Mookerjee

Today, a day after Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s 68th martyrdom anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a meeting with political parties from Jammu and Kashmir to chart out the future electoral map and trajectory for the region. It’s a fitting tribute to the great patriot.

Anirban Ganguly



It is deeply symbolic and profoundly significant that on 24th June, a day after Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s 68th martyrdom anniversary—Balidan Divas—Prime Minister Narendra Modi will confabulate with political parties from Jammu and Kashmir to chart out the future electoral map and trajectory for the region.

Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a new Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh had been spelt out immediately after the defanging of Article 370. He had spoken of a new beginning for the region, a beginning that is inclusive and equitable for everyone. The last two years have been a phase of multi-dimensional development for the region. Dr. Mookerjee’s original demand for the removal of 370 was made with the sole aim of cementing India’s unity and integrity and of depriving no region or section of the benefits of the Constitution.

To anyone who has gone through Dr Mookerjee’s interventions in Parliament and his correspondences, this aspect becomes clear. It is only the Congress ‘family’ historians and Communist propagandists who have deftly blanketed that dimension of his demand. It was a demand made and debated within the ambit of Parliament, it was a demand that was articulated and argued for by Dr Mookerjee through a sustained and copious correspondence with two of the principal personalities whose decision mattered the most– Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. When his persuasions failed, Dr. Mookerjee resorted to a democratic non-violent movement within the democratic framework of the new Republic. In fact, it was Nehru who cracked down on the movement across the country and it was Sheikh Abdullah’s police who fired on the demonstrators, tortured and imprisoned them.

It has served and continues to serve a section of the commentariat to paint Dr. Mookerjee’s demand as a narrow, politically expedient majoritarian demand. It is this same section that branded, as fascist, the Modi government’s historic step to disable Article 370. Discussing the situation in Jammu-Kashmir, in Parliament on 26th June 1952, a year before his death in detention in Kashmir, Dr. Mookerjee, for instance, argued that, “In a democratic federal state, the fundamental rights of the citizens of one constituent unit cannot vary vis-a-vis the citizens of another unit. Are not the people of Jammu and Kashmir entitled to the fundamental rights that we have given to the people of India minus Jammu and Kashmir? There is no scope for varied constitutional patterns, disparities as between one federating unit and another… All citizens of India…must enjoy the same fundamental rights and the same legal remedies to enforce them… But the fundamental question is that the fundamental rights of the citizen must apply to Jammu and Kashmir. There could be no compromise on that issue. The Supreme Court must function as the highest court or tribunal in the whole of India, Jammu, and Kashmir including. The Auditor-General’s writ must function in the whole of India including Jammu and Kashmir. These are important issues, which should be conceded… Let us discuss the whole question.” Dr Mookerjee also cautioned Nehru on the floor of the House, that he “must firmly assert that we do not want this ‘sovereign Kashmir’ idea. If you start doing it in Kashmir, others also will demand it.”

To Nehru’s fulmination and incoherent outbursts that the Jana Sangh, Dr Mookerjee and the demand for setting aside Article 370 was driven by a communal and sectarian motive, Dr Mookerjee’s rejoinder was unequivocal, ‘do not regard that, whenever an attack is made on certain matters of policy, some narrow, sectarian communal motive is prompting us. Rather it is the fear that history may repeat itself. It is the fear that what you are going to do may lead to the ‘Balkanisation’ of India, may lead to the strengthening of the hands of those who do not want to see a strong United India.’ The principle motive of Dr. Mookerjee’s demand was to arrest, expose and dissolve those forces who did not want to see a newly freed India remain united and integrated. Decades after these words were spoken, when read in the backdrop of the present, they seem so clear and so amazingly prescient.

In February 1953, a few months before his sudden death in Srinagar, Dr Mookerjee making his interventions in Lok Sabha in the motion on the Address by the President. Candidly making a sort of a final appeal, he said, “The suggestion is: accept the Indian Constitution. This is a Constitution framed by a Constituent Assembly which was dominated by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru himself. This is a Constitution that is based on secular considerations. It is not a Constitution dictated by any communal motives. If it is good enough for four crores of Muslims in India why can it not be good for the people of Jammu and Kashmir?”

Can anyone who believes in the virtues of the Indian Constitution, in our democratic fabric, and has a deep and abiding commitment to and faith in India’s unity and freedom join issues with this position? It is only the advocates of separatism, who ‘do not want to see a strong United India’, who have functioned within India as satellites of extraneous forces and ideologies who oppose it. These elements have, over decades, painted the demand for abrogating Art 370 as detrimental to Kashmiri interests, as communally motivated, a sectarian demand made with the motive of clamping on the rights of the people of the region and of foisting on them a majoritarian rule to exploit and enslave them.

This is the narrative that was and has been pushed across the world with the help of disintegrate-India cartels, both political and academic, which function in various institutions abroad or operate through various disguised forums in the name of human rights.

These cartels are mainly supported by the Pakistani establishment and their benefactors in the West and it has been their principal objective, since the summer of 2014, to try and ensure that India remains stymied in adversities, delaying her emergence as a leading power. That hope was permanently damaged and destroyed when Article 370 was abrogated on 5th August 2019.

In his Independence Day address on 15th August 2020, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, with the entire country riveted on him, Prime Minister Modi had said, “The delimitation exercise is going on in Jammu-Kashmir under the leadership of retired chief justice of the Supreme Court. We want early completion of the delimitation exercise so that there are early elections; there should be Jammu-Kashmir MLAs, its own cabinet, its Chief Minister so that it can march towards development with new vigour. India is committed to it and is making all efforts in this regard.” His intentions were clear then, the roadmap and its aims were also evident. Those who rejoice by saying that Modi has extended the invitation under pressure, ignore those public articulations of his.

With the electoral and political process, Jammu and Kashmir will be on an unalterable trajectory towards complete integration. Its status will be like any other State of the Union, a state firmly within the ambit of the Constitution and a robust participant in the march for ‘New India.’ It is a fitting tribute to Dr Mookerjee’s vision and sacrifice.

The writer is the director of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are the writer’s personal.

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Utpal Kumar



Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is a perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with his country today. A leader who was in his youth known as much for his cricketing exploits on field as for off-the-field glamorous lifestyle, is today the brand ambassador of the Taliban. Last year, he infamously called Al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden a “martyr”, a statement which his Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi preferred to duck in a recent interview to an Afghan TV channel, saying the PM was quoted “well, uh, again, out of context”. When the journalist persisted with the question: “Is he (Osama bin Laden) a martyr? You disagree (with Imran Khan)? On Osama bin Laden?” Qureshi said, “I will let that pass.” How can a minister go against his own master?

If in 2020 he called Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001, a ‘martyr’ while addressing the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, this year, he blamed women for the rising sexual violence in Pakistan. In an interview, which aired on 20 June, the Pakistan PM said, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes it will have an impact on the man unless they are robots. It’s common sense.” Blaming “fahashi” (vulgarity) for the rise of rape and sexual violence in the country, he invoked the importance of religion and the concept of ‘purdah’ in Islam. It is to remove “temptation” from society because “not everyone has willpower”, he emphasised.

Interestingly, and of course ironically, the same Imran Khan, according to his biographer Christopher Sandford, was in his youth known for his popularity among women and his frequenting of night clubs. Sandford writes in his book, Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician, that Imran Khan visited all the famous nightclubs in the UK and Australia, and would love to meet and court women. He would not drink alcohol, but wouldn’t have a problem with others doing the same.

Unfortunately, for Pakistan, this has been its tragedy all through its brief history as a nation-state. It got leaders who were overtly non-religious but never dithered in using the worst form fundamentalism for benefits, personal or otherwise. Just look at Mohammed Ali Jinnah: He used to drink alcohol, eat pork, smoke 50 cigarettes a day, and dress like an English gentleman. Yet, it was he who created Pakistan in the name of Islam! In the early 1970s, it was a socialist in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who introduced radical Islam in the country—a trend which gained momentum under Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Then there was Benazir Bhutto, one of the most ‘liberal’ Prime Ministers in the history of Pakistan, who presided over the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan. Gen Pervez Musharraf “did not blanch at whiskey, danced when the mood was upon him”, as Steve Coll describes him in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Ghost Wars, and yet he believed firmly in the necessity of the Taliban.

So, what does this phenomenon tell India and Indians, who would historically go weak-kneed whenever a “democratically elected” government comes to power in Pakistan—till the Modi government decided to give it up after the Uri and Pathankot attacks? We would be told by our peaceniks and so-called experts to reach out to the newly elected rulers of Pakistan, to make a grand concessionary gesture to help strengthen their hold in the fledgling democratic setup. This explains some of our excessively indulgent moves—from the one-sided concessions being granted by Mrs Indira Gandhi to Zulfikar Bhutto, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee making an earnest but naïve peace overtures to Islamabad via the Lahore bus diplomacy, which ironically ended up at the treacherous Kargil heights at the loss of hundreds of young soldiers.

As the transformation of Imran Khan from a suave, charismatic playboy to a hardened Islamist—and also other Pakistan leaders in the past from Jinnah to Nawaz Sharif—suggests, secularism and liberal values are sacrificed first at the altar of power in Islamabad. Anyone ruling that country will have to seek legitimacy from Islam and Islamists, especially those who are seen as suspects. And this, unfortunately, may be the reason why there may not be any redemption for democracy in our immediate western neighbourhood in the near future at least. And so is the case with good neighbourly relations with India.

In fact, India must be prepared for a perpetual state of warfare, overt or covert, with Pakistan, for its very raison d’etre is based on anti-India sentiments. It sees its existence as a state constantly in fight with India. Pakistan sees itself as an antithesis to the very idea of India, which invariably threatens the ‘3Ms’ that define Pakistan—Mullah, Military and Militant. Imran Khan is just a symptom. The real problem is the idea of Pakistan.

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Beijing has paid in terms of its reputation. Now it will pay with money.

Deepak Vohra



The world is a funny place. In May 2021, that pucca British-accent fellow who masquerades as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister claims that his country’s priorities have changed. In June 2021, Virus Pong, realising how isolated his country is, asked his officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for China! Wolf warriors, please go back to your lairs, your aggression has backfired.

“Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” lamented Lady Macbeth, possessed by the guilt of regicide.

After converting our planet into a gas chamber, Virus Xi tries to morally reinvent himself as a great humanitarian, out to save humankind through his fake vaccine. Ask the Tibetans and Uighurs and Kazakhs and Manchurians if his concept of innate Han superiority has been abandoned. I wonder if Hitler ever knelt beside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination centres to seek forgiveness from his Jewish victims, and loudly lamented German eugenics. China plays the victim and aggressor card at the same time.

Following the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the humiliating Boxer Protocol, which imposed backbreaking compensation obligations. Remembering that, and lamenting its humiliation every year, China decides to become aggressive.

Its global image takes a severe beating. China’s coming-out party with the impressive 2008 Beijing Olympics won universal admiration. But the world’s suspicion intensified when China boasted about the superiority of its system versus liberal democracy. The global focus on the 2013 ill-fated trillion-dollar Bilk and Rob Initiative has mutated like the virus from appreciation to angst.

The anti-China ire is even more vehement, now that there is credible evidence that the virus is a Chinese pathogen-based bioweapon that the Chinese military wanted to win a war without fighting it by crippling the adversary’s medical system. Even the god of viruses, Dr Anthony Fauci, is no longer sure that it is a natural phenomenon.

Atom bombs are a passe; they have been around since 1945 and many countries have them. A nuclear bomb has to be physically delivered and the delivery vehicle can be traced. A bioweapon is totally anonymous and gives its user total deniability, not just plausible deniability.

As its mask slips, China flails about desperately, following its template of economic blandishments, abuse and subterfuge. It claims that the deadly virus originated in America, in Italy, in France, in India, in Africa, on the moon, anywhere but in Wuhan. Even their media first called it the Wuhan virus, and then, on orders, blamed the United States’ military, but China’s Ambassador to the US confirmed in an interview in March 2020 that Covid-19 was not developed in a United States military laboratory.

There is no doubt among the senior Chinese leadership about the origin and lethality of the virus, so obfuscation and lies were imperative. China’s wolf warriors quickly launched a massive “infodemic” of denial and disinformation on Virus Pong’s instructions with one clear message: The truth must never get out.

China restricted internal travel but encouraged its diaspora in early 2020 to go back to their countries of residence. It ordered its Sancho Panza in the World Health Organization (WHO) to ask countries not to suspend flights to China, to create the impression that all was well. He said “Yesss Sirrrr”.

No credible epidemiologist in the world has shown evidence that the virus originated anywhere but China. A smart criminal, after committing his act, first destroys fingerprints, footprints and bloodstains.

When the US government shut the Chinese Consulate in Houston last year, a pall of smoke hung over the compound for several days as the staff burnt the copious files they kept on Chinese-Americans working in that hi-tech region.

But even the sharpest felon cannot eliminate circumstantial evidence such as chronology of events, movement, injury on the victim’s body, witnesses. Chinese officials claimed that the virus might have been discovered in China, but did not originate there, but instead of permitting research into the origins of the virus, vital to prevent the next pandemic, China tried to focus on who should be blamed.

The WHO team did not get approval for a year to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When they did, the most important data was not shared with them.

Do not link political issues with economic ones, China tells India. But it does just that when Australia asks for an international inquiry into the origins of the Chinese virus and imposes economic costs on Australia.

So, in a strange symbiotic way, the global anger and Chinese vituperation overfeed on each other. In April 2020, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: China’s Communist Party will pay the price for not sharing information they had about the coronavirus pandemic and thus causing a “huge challenge” for economies.

The actual damage to the global economy now being talked about is several trillion dollars. Two Harvard professors have termed the pandemic among the greatest calamities in modern US history, the greatest threat to prosperity and wellbeing since the Great Depression of 1928. They estimate that the cost of the pandemic to America will be at least $16 trillion (more than the amount spent on all the wars—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria since 9/11) provided the pandemic ends by 2021, which is optimistic.

The long-term effects of the Chinese virus, even on mildly-infected people infection, is far worse than was originally anticipated, according to researchers and doctors in northern Italy, and confirmed by American and Indian doctors. Since the virus attacks every human organ, psychosis, cardiovascular trauma, insomnia, renal and hepatic disease, spinal and biliary infections, strokes, chronic tiredness, and mobility issues are being identified in former coronavirus patients in Lombardy, the worst-affected region in the country. A recent US study confirms that 4/5 Chinese virus patients developed encephalopathy ranging from short-term memory loss and difficulty with multitasking to confusion, stupor, and coma.

India is second only to the US in infections. The cost to India would be enormous, with its economy contracting over 7% in 2020 and likely to shrink again in 2021. Based on a regression analysis using dependent and independent variables of economic output lost, human lives destroyed, material damage costs, diversion of resources, medical costs, and recovery costs, I estimate the cost to India to be $3 trillion from 2020-25.

Many countries went into months of lockdown in 2020 in a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19, which reduced cross-border travel and accelerated job losses. Governments increased spending to cushion the economic damage, but are now left with a huge debt pile. Meanwhile, central banks around the world slashed interest rates and purchased more assets to inject more money into the financial system. The pandemic has sent the global economy into one of its worst recessions ever, and it isn’t yet clear when a full recovery will be in place.

A slow rollout of vaccines across developing economies could hamper the return of activity to pre-pandemic levels. Even among advanced economies, renewed lockdowns in Europe in a bid to stave off a resurgence will push back economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast the global economy could shrink 4.4% in 2020, before bouncing back, but warned that the return to pre-pandemic levels will be “long, uneven, and uncertain”. Globally, government measures to cushion the pandemic’s economic blow totaled $12 trillion, the IMF said in October last

But that was before the second wave hit. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said that in some countries, the early effects of Covid-19 on labor markets were “ten times larger than that observed in the first months of the 2008 global financial crisis”.

Will China pay when reputed experts estimate China’s debt to be over USD $40 trillion, three times its GDP? Much of law is based on precedent. Making the defeated party pay war compensation has a long history. It is intended to cover damage or injury inflicted. War reparations refers to money or goods changing hands, but not to the annexation of land. Rome imposed large indemnities on Carthage after the First and Second Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE. The 1815 Treaty of Paris ended the Napoleonic wars. France was ordered to pay 700 million francs in indemnities. In proportion to its GDP, it is the most expensive war reparation ever paid by a country. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the 1921 London Schedule of Payments required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks ($33 billion). The final payment was made in 2010.

After World War II, according to the July 1945 Potsdam conference, Germany was to pay the Allies $23 billion mainly in machinery and manufacturing plants, while its wartime ally Italy agreed to pay $400 million. Finland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Japan, Hungary too agreed to pay. Japan had to pay $600 million to several countries, among which India (and some others) declined to accept any reparations. After the Gulf War, Iraq’s financial liability for damage caused in its invasion of Kuwait was assessed at $350 billion. So, the precedent exists. So does the will.

We call the present situation “war” against the virus. Even if Xi PingPong changes course and decides to come clean, it may be too late. Realising that it is too expensive to be the sole Rambo of the world, America is repairing its relations with traditional allies and friends in Europe and Asia, and even worse from Beijing’s perspective, is pushing an international coalition to take on China. It has closed off space for China, by rejoining the WHO and the Paris climate accord. In May 2021, the top American diplomat for Asia said that the era of engagement with China was over and henceforth it would be a competition. The Quad is being strengthened by the day.

In October 2020, India, South Africa and 100 developing nations asked the WTO for temporary patent waivers for vaccines. Nine months later, in a carefully crafted statement, China said that it supported the appeal. But is this vaccine diplomacy or vaccine hypocrisy?

Why did China wait so long? China suffers from an acute identity crisis. Is it a struggling developing country, or is it the world’s reigning superpower in every which way? It also suffers from an acute superiority complex, and wants to be the leader in the vaccine stakes, but always thinks of its own commercial interests. If many countries start making virus vaccines (an unlikely scenario), who will buy the Chinese fakes?

Over 100 Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI) countries have renegotiated their debt to China. As demands grow for China to pay for the devastation it has caused, many poor nations will scream for compensation. All of China’s soft power attempts are unravelling.

We are seeing the green shoots of an alliance of nations that will refuse to do business with China. The perfect storm has hit China: Massive food shortages; endless floods from May 2020; several million displaced; banks in huge debt; and foreign exchange at its lowest. In addition, even the PLA is disgruntled, while PingPong has lost the trust of his people.

“We’re going to be back in the game,” promises Joe Biden, and asks his intelligence fellows to quickly prepare a consolidated report on the origin of the virus. China has paid in terms of its reputation. Now it will pay with money.

Ambassador Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan, and Guinea-Bissau; and a Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil. The views expressed are personal.

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Pankaj Vohra



Milkha Singh would go down in history as independent India’s unchallenged sporting hero, whose feats inspired millions of our countrymen, making him a living legend. Despite facing acute hardships and a troubled childhood, the ‘Flying Sikh’, as he was fondly called, attained great heights, not achieved by any sportsman during his golden era. He was an icon whose name and fame cut across generations and made him into one of the best-known Indians of all times. The closest examples of anyone from another field who have attained this kind of reputation over a period of time and sustained it, can be perhaps Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi.

A modest man with no pretensions, Milkha was a role model for the best-known woman athlete, P.T. Usha, who like him also obtained the fourth position in the Los Angeles Olympics, 24 year after the flying Sikh lost in a photo finish at Rome. On hearing about his demise, P.T. Usha paid her most sincere homage to him, describing him as her idol. In fact, Milkha’s success story is also a tribute to the Indian Army, which supported his efforts, with not too many facilities available at that time. His story was such that a few years ago, Farhan Akhtar decided to make a movie on him and played the lead character of the distinguished athlete.

Milkha Singh was, without any doubt, a Bharat Ratna and successive governments ignored him for the highest civilian honour in his lifetime, though no one from the field of sports deserved it more than him. Sachin Tendulkar has been worshipped like a God by his fans, but before conferring the Bharat Ratna on him, the UPA government should have considered Milkha Singh. Sachin has achieved innumerable records, but if a person from the field of cricket was to be chosen, both Sunil Gavaskar, arguably the best Indian batsman ever, or Kapil Dev, who led India to its first World Cup victory, should have been chosen. This is not to discount Sachin’s contributions but to underline that he would have qualified for the honour in any case at some point, but there were others who could have been also considered.

There are sportspersons who have outclassed themselves despite several limitations. In the field of hockey, Major Dhyan Chand, his brother Roop Singh and K.D. Singh Babu besides Balbir Singh of the Western Railways and former skipper Ajitpal Singh, were all exceptional sportsmen as well; the first three accomplished a lot before India became independent. P.T. Usha, Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Sania Mirza, P. Gopichand, Prakash Padukone, Ramanathan Krishnan, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Abhinav Bindra are amongst a galaxy of sportspersons who have brought glory to our land. However, Milkha Singh was the lone ranger, whose name and fame stood out. In fact, there were so many jokes that were coined featuring him, which showed how popular he was.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has announced the setting up of a Milkha Singh Chair at the Patiala Sports Institute, something which should have been done during his lifetime. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be honouring public sentiments if he bestows the ‘Bharat Ratna’ on this Bharat Ratna. It would be the most deserving award to a person whose determination and hard work made him a part of the legion of superheroes. May his soul rest in peace.

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Why universities are not ready for online degree programmes

As of now, there may be very few universities in the country which can honestly fulfill all technical, academic and social requirements of full-fledged online degree programmes.

Prof. Ved Prakash



Higher education all over the world is undergoing an enormous amount of transformation in all its multi-dimensional aspects. This includes engagement with new emerging frontiers of knowledge, developing its interdisciplinary perspectives, research and innovation covering both fundamental and applied aspects across different subjects, impact of technology on the process of teaching and learning, to name a few. Besides, the cost of higher education has also been increasing in leaps and bounds resulting in the emergence of low-cost models to make it accessible to a greater number of people. It is a fact that almost all the developing economies are considerably impacted by consideration of cost, massification, equity and quality of higher education. The Indian higher education cannot be an exception to this global development. It is obligated to take appropriate measures to provide access to quality higher education to a large number of aspirants using conventional as well as other possible technology mediated modes of teaching and learning.

Indian higher education system thus far has largely been based on Face-to-Face and Open and Distance Learning (ODL) systems of delivery. While the former accounts for about 88% of the total enrolment, the latter accounts for the remaining 12%. The ODL system, which is in vogue since the sixties, is currently in use in as many as 91 universities which includes one Central university, 13 State Open Universities, and 77 state universities. Although the system of higher education has progressed considerably since independence, it is still at the threshold of the initial phase of “massification” with only 26.7% of the Gross Enrolment Ratio, which is several notches lower than the world average of 34.45%. So, there was a long felt need to look up for alternative models of delivery, something deeper and if not altogether new, then relatively so. It has gradually led to the idea of exploring the potential of online mode of delivery in higher education as it is believed to serve the dual purpose of being used for offering regular degree programmes and for short-term professional development programmes.  

The idea of online mode of delivery in Indian university system was mooted by the UGC in 2016. It was based on the premise that to begin with, universities could offer up to 20% of the course contents through online mode, outside the conventional mode, using technology-driven teaching and learning with credit accumulation and credit transfer. It was considered that this measured transition would provide good opportunity to the universities to have sufficient experience in developing multimedia enriched e-courseware in four quadrant format and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), video lectures and modules besides developing and organising necessary infrastructure that would be the basic requirements to run online programmes. And, if this transition yielded good results only then some select universities could be given concurrence to offer full-fledged online degree programmes.  

But because of the emerging demand of the university system, the UGC has brought out an integrated Regulations to enable universities to offer full-fledged online under-graduate and post-graduate programmes in 2020.  Any university, which is accredited by National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) with a minimum Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 3.26 and above on a 4-point scale, or having NIRF ranking in top 100 in two of the three preceding years in the university category, can offer three under-graduate and ten post-graduate online programmes without the prior approval of the UGC, in those disciplines which it offers in the conventional mode. In addition, there is yet another category wherein the university will have to take the prior approval of the UGC if its NAAC’s score falls between 3.21 and 3.26 or if its NIRF ranking in top 100 is only in one of the two preceding cycles.  The Regulations, however, prohibit online delivery of such programmes which require practical or laboratory work as a curricular requirement, except in cases where practical component is limited to programming and coding including software tools. There are also certain other stipulations like faculty requirement, development of in-house instructional materials, active engagement of learners, conduct of proctored examinations, etc, which are to be complied with by each university planning to offer programmes in online mode. 

There can be no two opinions that online learning now is extending its scope and reach with implications for making it a lifelong endeavour. Possibilities of developing and offering online, blended or hybrid models of learning are becoming a reality across the globe with choice of space and time and accumulating credits for acquiring a formal degree of the university. But there are serious issues of quality, like availability of tech-savvy teachers, quality of instructional materials, requisite infrastructure, broadband connectivity, and accessibility of middle and lower middle-class students to smart devices and internet connectivity. Since these online programmes are going to be from amongst non-science subjects and at a lesser cost, a larger number of students opting for them might come from poorer backgrounds with different kinds of post-enrolment requirements. These are extremely concerning issues that have no easy fixes and thus require thoughtful examination. 

It may be pertinent to mention here that there are a number of leading universities of the world which have not yet considered it fit to offer online degree programmes because of quality considerations. Although these universities have developed a wide range of online courses in the form of e-courseware, MOOCs, video lectures and modules, they make them available to those who want to broaden their knowledge on a particular topic, free of cost, without seeking any formal degree. Accordingly, joining such courses does not require any formal academic qualifications as a prerequisite. There are other sets of leading universities that are offering online courses only to complement their campus-based degree programmes and not for the award of full-fledged degrees.

The best course of action would have been to give careful attention to details besides drawing lessons out of the experiences of those leading foreign universities which are offering online courses for broadening of knowledge and honing of skills, and not for award of degrees. Online education can certainly provide opportunities of learning to a wide spectrum of learners and help increase the GER. But an incremental increase in GER sans quality is of little consequence. It is understood that the UGC has cleared as many as 38 universities which can offer full-fledged online degree programmes without the approval of the Regulators. It seems to have been done far too early and on a far too large a scale. Universities should have devoted a little more time to developing real expertise in online delivery by continuing with a blended or hybrid mode of delivery for a while. Some of these universities ostensibly are going to be academically and professionally naïve in the extreme.

These universities will have to make a big push on the technical front not only to make online programmes a success but also to widen the scope of their sustainability. Most of the universities may not be fully equipped in terms of basic technical infrastructure as well as technology-oriented workforce. The first and the foremost requirement of the universities would be to carry out customized Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to facilitate hassle free learners’ registration with provision of authentication, document verification and payment gateway. They will have to develop an appropriate dashboard that can provide quick access to all the stakeholders. It should be able to provide quick reminders to everyone, from the administrator to mentor to learners, to complete the task in a time-bound manner. They will have to set up a center having e-learning facilities including video-studio for recording, editing, and enriching lectures through animations and simulations. Universities will have to create their own Learning Management System (LMS) with user friendly features and provisions for both synchronous and asynchronous interactions to ensure seamless delivery of course contents and organisation of discussion forums. They may have to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven LMS with adaptive learning and adaptive assessment features to provide personalized learning experiences.

LMS integrated with analytical tools and other applications will have to be effectively used to analyse learner’s engagements in different activities to provide timely feedback besides ensuring the authenticity of the learner and mitigating the participation of proxy learners. This aspect of the LMS is going to be extremely critical not only to combat unfair means but also to ascertain real engagement of learners for the purpose of having their fair assessments. The LMS must be accessible in all devices, especially mobile devices, to enable all kinds of learners to use it without any technical glitches. The universities will have to put in place a robust system of proctored examination to ensure transparency, objectivity and credibility of their degree programmes.

On academic fronts, universities will have to redesign the curriculum to ensure its compatibility with the requirements of online delivery. The first and foremost requirement would be about redesigning outcome-based curriculum which ensures mapping of graduate attributes that are in sync with the needs and requirements of both the global market and the society. It would require proper structuring of syllabi with inbuilt hierarchy, development of good quality learner centric and multi-media enriched e-content in four quadrant MOOC format, quality reading materials in the form of e-courseware, short duration video lectures, well designed assignments in the form of projects, quizzes, term papers, provisions for synchronous and asynchronous interactions to enable students to participate in online discussions and forums, home assignments and criterion-referenced and norm-referenced tests to assess real potential of students. Universities will also have to make digital library resources available, provide links for open education resources and MOOCs and list of related publications as per the requirement of the programme to encourage self-learning. Apart from all that, they will have to provide professionally trained mentor teachers who will have to guide and counsel students at every stage of the programme. Universities will also have to design assessment tools for both formative and summative assessments. While they can use the Learning Management System (LMS) for formative assessment, they will have to use proctored examination for summative assessment along with provisions of verifiable online certification and award of diplomas and degrees. 

Universities will have to make doubly sure that their programme administrators or the mentor teachers do not treat the online programmes as an auto-play video courses. It will require tech savvy teachers who are fully conversant not only with the ICT empowered pedagogies and virtual interactions but are also capable of mentoring the students by engaging them effectively throughout the programme. This would require a teacher-student ratio much lower than what is proposed (1: 250). This would call for the organisation of regular orientation programmes for the faculty in collaboration with experts in e-learning and technology mediated teaching and learning.

As of now, there may be very few universities in the country which can honestly fulfill all technical, academic and social requirements of full-fledged online degree programmes. And, even when they do meet those professional requirements, there would still remain a serious concern of ensuring that no student, irrespective of his or her geographical location, has any kind of deprivation with regard to access to tools and devices needed for wholesomely benefitting from online modalities. Although it seems less threatening, if universities are going to seize this opportunity to maximise their resources, like some of them did through their ODL programmes in the past, then it may be equally worrisome. This transition obviously is going to be as much a difficult challenge for the universities as for the Regulators. It is not going to be a piece of cake for either of the two. But since they have already moved in this direction, now the onus lies on them to set standards and institutionalise full-fledged online degree programmes by justifying all the essential academic, technical and social requirements, failing which it would be nothing short of a misadventure.

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

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