1.Heavyweights shown the door as PM Modi rejigs Cabinet
Move aimed at bringing in qualified professionals and balancing regional and community aspirations in the run-up to upcoming elections
In a major shake up of his Council of Ministers almost midway through his second term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi oversaw the swearing-in of 43 Ministers (new faces and seven promotions to Cabinet rank) and dropped 12 Ministers (seven Cabinet and five Ministers of State) including Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s new Health Minister would be the newly elevated Cabinet Minister Mansukh Mandaviya.
Government sources termed it an effort by Mr. Modi to strike a balance between political messaging of including MPs from various regional centres as well as from marginalised communities and beefing up the skill set of the ministries with professionally and educationally qualified additions.
Several ministries have been clubbed together, sources say, to increase synergy. For example, Odisha MP and former bureaucrat Ashwini Vaishnaw will be the Railway Minister, with additional charge of Information and Technology and Communications, and Dharmendra Pradhan will handle Education with Skill Development while Home Minister Amit Shah will have additional charge of the new Ministry of Cooperation.
The rejig was significant not just for the inclusions but also the heavyweights who were dropped, including Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and Ministers of State Babul Supriyo, Debashree Choudhary, Ratan Lal Kataria, Pratap Sarangi and Sanjay Dhotre.
While unhappiness with the handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is being cited as the reason why Dr. Harsh Vardhan had to go, Mr. Javadekar and Mr. Prasad’s exits appeared to be over the failure to handle controversial issues hitting the government with regard to their ministries.
The portfolios of the new Ministers were announced late at night with Jyotiraditya Scindia getting the Civil Aviation portfolio and former Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan getting the Education Ministry. Mr. Pradhan’s Petroleum portfolio will be handled by Hardeep Singh Puri, who holds on to one of his old portfolios of Urban Development.
Former Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal will handle Ports and Shipping while the first Cabinet Minister from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiren Rijiju, will handle Law and Justice after the resignation of Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Janata Dal (United)’s R.C.P. Singh will be the new Steel Minister, and Pashupati Paras will occupy his brother, late Ram Vilas Paswan’s old portfolio of Food and Consumer Affairs. BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav will be the new Environment and Labour Minister, replacing Mr. Gangwar, who quit on Wednesday, and the Ministry of External Affairs will have three Ministers of State — V. Muraleedharan and new inductees Meenakshi Lekhi and Rajkumar Ranjan Singh.
With Wednesday’s inclusions, the government now has a record 12 Ministers belonging to the Scheduled Castes, 27 belonging to the Other Backward Classes, eight Ministers belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and five Ministers belonging to the minority communities, including one Muslim, one Christian, one Sikh and two Buddhists. Women Ministers number 11 in the Modi government, with two Cabinet Ministers and others being Ministers of State.
2.Darkness at noon, felled by the judiciary
Posterity will blame the judiciary for the incarceration and unfortunate death of Father Stan Swamy
It has been 81 years since Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was first published. The novel is set in the backdrop of the Great Purge of the late 1930s in the Soviet Union under Stalin. This period was marked by, among other things, political repression, police surveillance, general suspicion of the opposition, imprisonment, and executions. Decades on, thousands of miles away, darkness fell at noon in India too, when Father Stan Swamy passed away at a private hospital in Mumbai on July 5. Ominously reminiscent of the macabre world Koestler had drawn, Fr. Swamy’s death is much more than the death of an activist accused of terrorist activities. It is the result of a systemic abuse of majoritarian authority and disregard for the rule of law.
His life in a nutshell
For many, Fr. Swamy will be remembered as an inspiration. A Jesuit priest, he chose to make the upliftment of marginalised communities in Jharkhand his life’s work. He lived and worked in a single room, prolifically writing (over 70 books are credited to him) on dispossessed people. He was an activist for most of his life, and used the legal system to fight for the rights of those who were being unfairly targeted, and thought that the Constitution would help in securing justice, even moving the Jharkhand High Court in a public interest litigation on undertrials. When doing all of this, surely, he would never have imagined that his fate would be decided by the very system he used and believed in.
It started in August 2018, when the Pune police raided Fr. Swamy’s single-room home, seized his computer, cell phone, books and some classical music cassettes. Another raid took place in June 2019. Finally, on October 8, 2020, Fr. Swamy was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the 16th to join a roster of professors, activists, writers, and public intellectuals, as a suspect in the Bhima-Koregaon case. Fr. Swamy, aged over 80, remained an accused, in the custody of the state, till his death. Besides being arrested for what many believe to be improbable causes, and being possibly the oldest person ever accused of terrorism in India, the most tragic story is how his detention was handled by the state, by the police and worst of all, by the courts.
Fr. Swamy was arrested on flimsy evidence of some propaganda material and communication with other activists in the field, such as Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao, who were also arrested for similar charges. The authenticity of some of the allegedly indicting documentation, including a key report, has been questioned by international forensic data experts. But the state defended its arrest arguing that these issues must be gone into only during trial, and that the accused — i.e., Fr. Swamy — should remain in jail until then.
Pointer to judicial decline
This is the outcome also of the problematic Watali judgment, which I discuss in subsequent paragraphs. Repeated pleas for medical assistance by Fr. Swamy were consistently ignored or dismissed. Medical reports taken on record clearly showed that Fr. Swamy had the degenerative Parkinson’s disease, and could not even do basic tasks, such as holding a spoon, writing, walking or bathing. Indeed, the court noted that he had a severe hearing problem, and was physically very weak. But even that did not move them. Every regular bail application that was filed by his lawyers was unequivocally rejected. When he applied for medical bail, the court kept adjourning the matter, and merely offered him the services of a private hospital. In my opinion, this demonstrates a lack of sensitivity on the part of the judges, which is deeply saddening.
The series of events that led to Fr. Swamy’s eventual and tragic passing is testimony to the judicial decline that we have seen in recent years, which coincidentally or not, appears to be coterminous with the current political regime in India.
Why is the political establishment, and the police, so emboldened to pursue cases under UAPA against individuals like Fr. Swamy? A key reason, undoubtedly, is the weak judiciary we have today. Indeed, our judiciary today suffers from a great many flaws besides mere weakness. In Fr. Swamy’s case, the judges displayed apathy of a shocking order. It is perplexing when, on the one hand, the Chief Justice of India grandiloquently states that personal liberties and fundamental rights must be protected, and courts do precisely the opposite.
A weakened central principle
It would not be too bold to suggest that the idea of the “presumption of innocence” — a central principle of criminal law and procedure — is on a terribly weak footing these days in our country, and this should worry all of us greatly.
The source of this worry is the Supreme Court of India itself. Its April 2019 decision in National Investigation Agency vs Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali on the interpretation of the UAPA has affected all downstream decisions involving the statute. This decision has created a new doctrine, which is that effectively, an accused must remain in custody throughout the period of the trial, even if it is eventually proven that the evidence against the person was inadmissible, and the accused is finally acquitted. The illogic of this veers on the absurd: Why must an accused remain in jail only to be eventually acquitted?
According to the decision, in considering bail applications under the UAPA, courts must presume every allegation made in the First Information Report to be correct. Further, bail can now be obtained only if the accused produces material to contradict the prosecution. In other words, the burden rests on the accused to disprove the allegations, which is virtually impossible in most cases. The decision has essentially excluded the admissibility of evidence at the stage of bail. By doing so, it has effectively excluded the Evidence Act itself, which arguably makes the decision unconstitutional. Bail hearings under the UAPA are now nothing more than mere farce. With such high barriers of proof, it is now impossible for an accused to obtain bail, and is in fact a convenient tool to put a person behind bars indefinitely. It is nothing short of a nightmare come true for arrestees.
This is being abused by the government, police and prosecution liberally: now, all dissenters are routinely implicated under (wild and improbable) charges of sedition or criminal conspiracy and under the UAPA. Due to the Supreme Court judgment, High Courts have their hands tied, and must perforce refuse bail, as disproving the case is virtually impossible. As a result of this decision, for instance, a High Court judge can no longer really adjudicate and assess the evidence in a case. All cases must now follow this straitjacketed formula of refusing bail. The effect is nearly identical to the draconian preventive detention laws that existed during the Emergency, where courts deprived people access to judicial remedy. If we want to prevent the disasters of that era, this decision must be urgently reversed or diluted, otherwise we run the risk of personal liberties being compromised very easily.
The most flagrant abuse of the UAPA, and constant rejection of bail applications of those accused as a means of silencing opposing voices, can be seen in the Bhima Koregaon cases, including Fr. Swamy’s case, as well as the cases pertaining to protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), where mere thought is elevated to a crime. In multiple instances, evidence is untenable, sometimes even arguably planted, and generally weak overall. But as a consequence of UAPA being applied, the accused cannot even get bail. Courts cannot go into the merits of the case due to the Supreme Court judgment.
An issue for the judiciary
When courts do go into such matters, as in the instance of the Delhi High Court granting bail to three young activists accused in a conspiracy relating to the 2020 riots in Delhi, the Supreme Court uncharacteristically decides to weigh in. The Supreme Court reportedly expressed “surprise” and dissatisfaction at the High Court’s decision, giving the direction that the decision will “not to be treated as precedent by any court” to give similar reliefs. Specifically, the Supreme Court reportedly said that “in a bail application, a 100-page judgment discussing all laws is surprising us”, perhaps forgetting that the case that started it all, i.e., the Watali judgment of the Supreme Court, was itself a judgment in a bail matter! This seems to imply that only the Supreme Court can hold forth on matters of statutory interpretation, and that High Courts — which are constitutional courts in their own right — may not? By extension, if statutes ought not to be examined at all by High Courts, does this mean that individual arrestees must languish in jail till, say, the constitutional validity of the statutes under which they are arrested are decided? Surely, this would be completely irrational.
Posterity will blame the judiciary for the incarceration and unfortunate death of Fr. Swamy, and the continued imprisonment of so many others like him. But voices will continue to rise in protest. As Fr. Swamy himself said, though, “we will still sing in the chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”
Why In News
- Recently, many activists, journalists and students have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in different cases across the country.
- UAPA was passed in 1967. It aims at effective prevention of unlawful activities associations in India.
- Unlawful activity refers to any action taken by an individual or association intended to disrupt the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India.
- The Act assigns absolute power to the central government, by way of which if the Centre deems an activity as unlawful then it may, by way of an Official Gazette, declare it so.
- It has death penalty and life imprisonment as highest punishments.
- Under UAPA, both Indian and foreign nationals can be charged. It will be applicable to the offenders in the same manner, even if crime is committed on a foreign land, outside India.
- Under the UAPA, the investigating agency can file a charge sheet in maximum 180 days after the arrests and the duration can be extended further after intimating the court.
- The 2004 amendment, added “terrorist act” to the list of offences to ban organisations for terrorist activities, under which 34 outfits were banned.
- Till 2004, “unlawful” activities referred to actions related to secession and cession of territory.
- In August, Parliament cleared the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 to designate individuals as terrorists on certain grounds provided in the Act.
- The Act empowers the Director General of National Investigation Agency (NIA) to grant approval of seizure or attachment of property when the case is investigated by the said agency.
- The Act empowers the officers of the NIA, of the rank of Inspector or above, to investigate cases of terrorism in addition to those conducted by the DSP or ACP or above rank officer in the state.
3.Challenging negative social norms
India touches a demographic milestone this World Population Day, but roadblocks remain
In these troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Population Day on July 11 brings some positive news — India has entered a demographic sweet spot that will continue for another two to three decades. Half of India’s population is under 29 years of age, which means that in this period, a greater proportion of young people will drive India’s economic growth and social progress. So, they must not only be healthy, knowledgeable and skilled but must also be provided with the rights and choices to develop to their fullest potential, including, and especially, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The Guttmacher–Lancet Commission (Starrs et al, 2018) in looking at how to improve SRHR in populations formulated a comprehensive definition of SRHR that encompasses a broader range of issues. These include SRHR and issues such as violence, stigma and respect for bodily autonomy, which greatly impact the psychological, emotional and social well-being of individuals.
India’s population growth is now stabilising. The decline in overall fertility notwithstanding, the population will continue to grow because of the effect of ‘population momentum’. It is like a Jumbo Jet that has started to descend but will take some distance to stop. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR), presently at 2.2 children, will soon reach replacement level (2.1). However, the TFR remains higher than the national average of 2.2 children among women who live in rural areas, have little formal education and are in the lowest income quintile — a majority of them live in the poorer States.
Changing social norms is one of the biggest challenges for India to address the needs of the next generation. For example, India’s population stabilisation strategy must be adjusted keeping in mind the rights of women and girls. Women must have a greater say in choosing their family size. Prescriptive or coercive methods, such as one- or two-child norms, have rarely worked well anywhere for long. It goes without saying that for women and girls, the empowerment to make choices leads to better health outcomes, such as knowing how to prevent unintended pregnancy or giving birth with the help of a skilled birth attendant.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in healthcare systems and has led to serious gaps and challenges in the provision of information and services on sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Even before the pandemic, pervasive negative social norms, health system barriers and gender inequality hindered universal access to SRHR as envisioned under the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). On World Population Day this year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) India recognises that even if health systems are understandably strained, the provision of these services cannot wait. Any further delays will curtail the health and well-being of women and girls, the consequences of which can last a lifetime.
In the last two decades, India has made substantial gains with SRH indicators. Progressive policies for maternal health have resulted in improved rates of institutional delivery and a decline in maternal mortality ratio (MMR) from 327 in 1999-2001 to 113 per 100,000 live births in 2016-18, as per Sample Registration System (SRS) data.
There have also been significant shifts in family planning in the past decade, and data from the National Health Family Survey 5 for the year 2019-20 (NFHS-5) show how contraceptive prevalence has improved in most States. We ought to celebrate India’s success, as it significantly contributes to global progress.
The current government, with programmes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP), has made some efforts to challenge existing social norms and has underlined that investments in social causes must go alongside economic progress. All sections of society must embrace this call for positive change, each doing their part, from the individual to the institution level. The UNFPA is keen to take India’s success models and strengthen the South-South Collaboration further.
But success is hard-earned and never assured. There are many challenges on the path to 2030, the goalpost for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Two million adolescent girls (15-19 years) each year had a pregnancy, and of these, nearly 63% were unwanted or unintended (Guttmacher Institute, 2021). This points to inadequate information and access to SRH services for this age group. In girls aged 15-19 years, 22.2% had an unmet need for contraception, according to NFHS-4.
Girls are still marrying too young — 26.8% of women aged 20-24 years are married before they turn 18, often having their first child within the first year of marriage. Far too many girls and women face gender-based violence and harmful practices that are socially sanctioned. All of these practices are rooted in social norms, beliefs and practices that deny women their bodily autonomy.
India has slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries, becoming the third-worst performer in South Asia in The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report (2021). Time to achieve the ambitious targets of the SDGs is running out. India must hence choose its priorities carefully. Our analysis seems to suggest that placing youth, women and girls at the centre of policymaking and services could trigger a positive ripple effect. If young people, and adolescent girls in particular, have access to education, relevant skills, information and services to make healthy choices, including related to SRH, are empowered to exercise their rights, and have access to opportunities for employment, then India will be on a clear path to achieve its goals.
What research and practical experience show is that when women can make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health, and when they have access to services to support their choices, societies are healthier and more productive. A woman who has control over her body gains not only in terms of autonomy but also through advances in health, education, income and safety. She is more likely to thrive, and so is her family. The UNFPA calls upon stakeholders to help build a new set of social norms to drive this mission.