Indian Express Editorial Analysis
21 May 2020

1) Law as weapon-


CONTEXT:

A dharna in Agra over the movement of buses to ferry migrant labour led to the arrest of the Uttar Pradesh Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu and two of his party colleagues — all three subsequently got bail.

Amongst the laws weaponised by the UP police to detain the Opposition leaders is a late-19th century statute, The Epidemic Diseases Act.

 

THE EPIDEMIC DISEASES ACT:

Drafted by the colonial state in 1897 “to take special measures and prescribe regulations” for “the better prevention of the dangerous epidemic diseases”, the law has been summoned in the past to deal with outbreaks of cholera, swine flu and dengue. But its heavy-handed and arbitrary use, or misuse, during the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is new.

Patients, journalists and Opposition leaders have been at the receiving end of this blunt(severe) instrument that does not actually define an epidemic, leave alone a pandemic.

NEED OF EXTENSIVE SURVEILLANCE:

Of course, combating COVID-19 does require extensive surveillance, including identification of the carriers of the virus and their contacts.

But in most parts of the world, including India, a growing body of literature has underlined that such extraordinary measures are best undertaken by taking citizens into confidence, using persuasion and involving the community.

At several places, however, the state authorities are giving the go-by to these imperatives and asserting state power in heavy-handed ways, by taking cover under Clause 4 of the Epidemics Act — actions taken under the law are provided immunity from “legal proceedings” for they are deemed to have been “undertaken in good faith”.

In early April, when knowledge of the virus was still uncertain among large sections of the people, an FIR was slapped against the family of a Bengaluru technician, who had contracted COVID-19, for “hiding information”, and they were charge-sheeted under the Epidemics Act.

Also last month, the Mumbai Police invoked the law to arrest a journalist, alleging that his social media posts led to unrest among migrant workers in suburban Bandra.

CRIMINALISING CRITICISM AND DISSENT:

A toxic mix of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, Section 144 of the CrPC and the Epidemics Act may well be on its way to becoming the new sedition law, which has been invoked with disturbing frequency in the recent past to criminalise criticism and dissent.

Last week, the Gujarat government combined the sedition law with the Disaster Management Act to charge a journalist for reporting that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani may be removed by the BJP High Command for his handling of the pandemic.

Also last week, this paper reported that at least four FIRs have been filed against journalists in Himachal Pradesh for highlighting the condition of stranded labourers in the pandemic.

“FAKE” AND “SENSATIONAL” NEWS:

The FIRs allege that these reports are “fake” and “sensational” news; the cases are being investigated. But governments must realise that the discourse on citizens’ rights and public health has moved on from the times when the colonial government charged Bal Gangadhar Tilak for sedition for criticising its handling of the 1897 bubonic plague.

Else, the Supreme Court must intervene to allow people to voice their opinions freely during a crisis, and especially in a crisis, without the threat of their being criminalised.

CONCLUSION:

Misuse of Epidemic Diseases Act by government must stop. Else, court must step in to protect citizens’ freedoms

 

2) A fuller support-


CONTEXT:

Over the past week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled a series of measures to help ease the stress in different sectors of the economy across the country.

But the announcements have failed to reassure or enthuse, pointing to a chasm between expectations and reality.

 

ACTUAL OUTGO:

The actual fiscal outgo is likely to be around only 1 per cent of GDP, far short of the proclaimed 10 per cent. The government’s conservative approach seems to be driven by several factors.

First, as there continues to be uncertainty over how long it will take for the pandemic to be brought under control, and how economic activity will shape up over the coming weeks and months, it is difficult at this juncture to make a reasonably accurate assessment about the state of the economy, and thus arrive at an estimate of the breadth and depth of the government intervention that is needed.

As Sitharaman said in an interview to this paper, “It’s too early for me to make an (assessment), it’s too early for me to even hazard a guess”. There appears to be an inclination, then, to keep the power dry for now.

AVOIDING MISTAKES:

There also appears to be a strong desire on the part of the government to avoid the mistakes made in the aftermath of the global crisis of 2008.

The consequences of continuing with the stimulus for too long, which stoked demand, and proved to be inflationary, leading to the taper tantrums in 2013, are still etched in memory. Yet, having said that, with demand collapsing, and unlikely to recover meaningfully in the near-term, and inflation barring temporary supply-side disruptions unlikely to firm up, sooner or later the government will have to firm up its plans.

All options, including the possibility of monetising the deficit, may have to be on the table as the measures announced so far are unlikely to change the near-term growth outlook meaningfully.

CONCLUSION:

It is true that the extent of uncertainty is unprecedented. But revisiting the budget revenue and expenditure numbers only at the time of presenting the revised estimates might not be a prudent approach.

Instead, the government should present a short-to-medium term fiscal roadmap that provides a realistic assessment of the state of the economy.

It should clearly lay out how it intends to support the economy during this period, its expenditure priorities, as well as a clear plan for funding its deficit.

 

3) It is time to allow J&K full-fledged political activity-


CONTEXT:

The gazette notification of the rules on domicile(the country that a person treats as their permanent home) has brought the process initiated on August 5, 2019, in Jammu and Kashmir to a logical end. The annulment of Article 35A of the Constitution called for restating of the domicile qualifications in the state.

Article 35A had allowed the J&K legislature to introduce the “permanent resident” category, which was arbitrary(based on random choice or personal whim) and discriminatory.

The Permanent Resident Certificate (PRC) became a weapon in the hands of successive state governments to deny fundamental rights to several people, even though they had been living there for decades, in many cases from the time of accession.

 

EXTENDING DOMICILE STATUS:

The new rules extend domicile status to not just the current PRC holders, but to all those who had been denied that status under the 35A regime. Refugees from West Pakistan, who had migrated to the Jammu region during Partition and the majority of whom belong to the Scheduled Castes, will now be able to attain domicile.

The same is true for the 1971 refugees from Chamb region. Safai karmacharis, largely from the SC community, who were called into the state in the 1950s for such jobs, were also denied PRC status.

So were the Gurkhas. Children of Kashmiri Pandits, born outside the state, can now claim domicile, as can children born to a resident mother and a non-resident father. People from PoK, who had migrated to other parts of the country and become domiciled in those states, can also come back to claim domicile in J&K.

NEW DOMICILE POLICY:

The new domicile policy mandates all government jobs to be reserved for domiciles. In this scenario, the new rules are going to benefit large sections of the state’s population, who were treated as aliens until now.

Incidentally, several such important measures benefitting large sections of the population of the state never attract the attention of the many eminences(important or distinguished person) who shed tears over neutralised terrorists and their incarcerated accomplices.

This has been the tragedy with J&K. J&K has always been seen from either a Pakistan prism or the prism of the terrorists. That there are millions of ordinary people both in Jammu and in Kashmir, who are far removed from terrorism and separatism, and want to lead life as peaceful citizens of the country, does not appeal to these eminences.

KASHMIR DISPUTE:

“The Kashmir dispute is on the agenda of the two countries since 1947, which does not allow people of the state to mentally settle down and treat themselves as citizens of India.

Repeated rhetoric of Indo-Pak dialogue for settling all disputes naturally leaves every Kashmiri thinking that their future is yet to be decided. This adds to their anger, alienation, uncertainty and results in violence,” bemoaned(express discontent) police officer A M Watali in his revealing memoir.

The most significant change that has been brought about by the Narendra Modi government was to stop looking at Kashmir from a Pakistani or a terrorist prism.

Instead, we started looking at it from the prism of its 12 million inhabitants. August 5, 2019, symbolises that shift in the government’s approach.

There is a Kashmiri saying: “shal shal beun beun, tongi wizi quney” (Jackals live separately, but howl together). From Islamabad to New York, many Islamists and their supporters are howling at a feverish(hot) pitch against this shift.

But the people of J&K are largely calm. Incidents of terror have increased since the onset of summer largely due to the push from across the border. Local recruitment, however, remained low compared to previous years.

EXTENDING MAJORITY OF THE PROVISIONS OF THE CONSTITUTION TO J&K:

Article 370 had been amended umpteen times in the past. Once the accession was “ratified” by the J&K Constituent Assembly in 1954, the Indian government quickly extended majority of the provisions of the Constitution to J&K.

The Nehru government even assured Parliament on November 27, 1963, that further steps to erode Article 370 would be taken “in the next month or two”.

All along, Kashmiri politicians were making provocative speeches in Srinagar, but the people at large remained nonchalant.

Sheikh Abdullah had the reputation of being a “communalist in Kashmir, a communist in Jammu and a nationalist in India”, as Pandit Premnath Dogra had once put it.

The Delhi Agreement of 1975 between Abdullah and Indira Gandhi too did not return any of the original powers under Article 370. Indira Gandhi told Abdullah categorically that the “clock cannot be turned back”. The people of J&K accepted the Delhi Agreement.

REVOKING A 370:

Now, Modi and Amit Shah decided to put an end to the “uncertainty” by doing away with Article 370 and Article 35A in letter and spirit. Having lived under the shadow of Article 370 for seven decades, the people of J&K decided to give the new status a chance.

That is the reason why the region has been largely quiet in the last nine months. The detractors would attribute this calm to the excessive presence of security forces and arrests of leaders. Except for half-a-dozen senior leaders, most politicians have been released.

The presence of security forces too has been rolled back significantly. Even then, people are not on the streets pelting stones and shouting azadi.

CONCLUSION:

It is time the state administration appreciates this and pays the people handsomely for their openness. Certain harsh measures like denial of 4G services, which were necessary under special circumstances, can now be done away with, as the state administration and security apparatus are capable of handling difficult situations.

The Constitution allows for the administrative handling of units for some duration under special circumstances. Those circumstances have more or less passed in J&K. It is time the UT is allowed full-fledged political activity.

Full political integration is when the state is run by its people rather than the proverbial “steel frame”.

And that conclusively conveys the message to the jackals(opportunistic) across the border that J&K is fully and integrally India’s and the only dispute to settle is the return of PoK.