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It is time to regulate hate speech on social media | Opinion

Follow global examples in crafting a legal regime that imposes strict liability on intermediaries and users

Online forums are often looked at in a vacuum, but they are merely a reflection of society. In India, polarising content and hateful material on the Internet has proliferated in the recent past. Opinions that an individual would earlier hold back for fear of societal backlash have now found their safe spaces online. The Internet harbours a variety of extreme statements.

Social media today is a hotbed of toxic and hateful conversations. Curbing hate speech and fake news has emerged as a critical challenge for governments globally. But this is not just a technological issue; it is also a societal problem. In 2019, a terrorist opened fire in two mosques that killed at least 49 worshippers and wounded dozens of others in Christchurch, New Zealand. The aftermath of such terror attacks led to a new debate about how governments and civil society must seek to curtail hate speech on the Internet. The attack was live-streamed on Facebook by the perpetrator. In fact, the entire attack seemed orchestrated for the social media age. Before it took place, a post on the anonymous message board 4chan — a particularly lawless forum that often features racist and extremist posts — seemed to preview the horror. The post was linked to an 87-page manifesto filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideas, and directed users to a Facebook page that hosted a live-stream of the attack. Posts on Twitter also appeared to herald the attack. Eventually, Facebook and Twitter took down the video — but not before it had been viewed by most of the world.

Countries across the world have already begun to acknowledge the issue of hate speech and fake news and how it affects the functioning of society. Germany and France have some of the most stringent policies in this regard. NetzDG or the Network Enforcement Act, in Germany, ensures tough prohibitions against hate speech, which include propagating pro-Nazi ideology. It provides strict takedown timelines, but also provides for an extension of such a deadline in the event that additional facts are necessary to determine the truthfulness of the information. The basis to decide whether any material infringes the law is based on their criminal code. When surveyed, most of the complaints received in Germany were related to hate speech or political extremism, rather similar to India.

France, on the other hand, has a transparency obligation for digital platforms, wherein platforms must publish the name and amount paid by the author in the event that content is sponsored. With regard to fake news, France has an 1881 law that defines the criteria to establish that news is fake and being disseminated deliberately on a large scale. A legal injunction is created in this event to swiftly halt such news from being disseminated. These nations are among the most proactive in content regulation. There is a need to achieve this level of efficiency, while respecting the freedoms of all those involved, right from the individual to social media companies.

It is undeniable that the consequences of the narrative that takes shape on online platforms, more often than not, have real life implications. Back home in India, in 2018, the spread of rumours, regarding child traffickers, through popular messaging platform WhatsApp, led to a spate of lynchings in rural areas. More recently, during the election campaign preceding the Delhi legislative assembly elections, an official election rally enticed crowds with the use of the slogan “Desh ke gadaaron ko, Goli maaro saalon ko”. However, in the days following this rally, a young man translated these words into reality by opening fire on protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia University, once again highlighting how hate speech has real consequences.

Fake news and hate content in India are primarily related to a person’s caste, gender or religion, which are sensitive topics for most of us. Moreover, the regulations to deal with such issues are insufficient and are also scattered across multiple acts and rules under the Indian Penal Code, the Information Technology Act and Criminal Procedure Code. The need is to harmonise and unify the existing laws. Moreover, there is a need to amend the draft intermediary guidelines rules to tackle modern forms of hate content that proliferate on the Internet. The reactive approach in the Shreya Singhal judgment gave the direction on how hate content should be regulated and the government should follow this direction, where the user reports to the intermediary and the platforms then take it down after following due process. The present legislative approach ignores due process and is, therefore, subject to abuse by the government. While security is fundamental, privacy is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and it is imperative that the government balances both privacy and security going forward.

We have now reached a juncture where hate speech is being employed by members of the ruling party in their efforts to garner support. Hate, vitriol and falsities are commonly spread to sway emotions and influence people. However, from these examples, we see that such speech does and will have consequences. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to recognise the menace of hate speech and ensure that there is proper regulation in place to tackle the issue. Though the intermediary guidelines proposed by the government are a step in the right direction, there is much left to be desired on a comprehensive framework to tackle the issue while safeguarding the freedoms of citizens.

Opinion – Rise of Right Wing Populism in India

There has been a surge towards right-wing authoritarianism around the globe. This is seen in the increasing electoral validation of the far-right across Europe, razor fences running through Eastern European borders reflecting a growing xenophobic sentiment, Shinzo Abe’s campaign for ‘national revival’ in Japan, and the militaristic tactics of Duterte in the Philippines. There are myriad reasons for the populist surge: stagnant working and middle class incomes, the feelings of being ‘left out’ among those just managing to get by, the disruption of communities as a result of shifting economic factors, as well as resistance to the seemingly relentless forces of globalisation – trade and immigration. I examine the Indian case to make sense of the specific conditions that led to the 2014 election of the Hindu majoritarian BJP party and its populist leader, Narendra Modi. Primarily I argue that an understanding of the specific socio-political historical context is necessary specifically as it relates to disputes over the term secularism in both the constitution, as well as the public sphere.

 “Secularism is the dominant ideology constituting the premise of state-society relations in postcolonial India” (Duschinsky, 2007). In contrast to its western incarnation of separation of church and state, secularism in India refers to the state’s non-preferential treatment of religious communities. Though the constitution did not formally label the state as “secular”[1], a number of constitutional provisions gave shape to the conception of the secular state, these include articles 25, 26, and 14. In this form of secularism, the state was at an “equidistance” (Varshney, 2002, p.80) from all religions, maintaining a public stance that would not favour any one religion over another. However, the danger of aspect of equidistance is that it can also be interpreted as equi-proximity. That is to mean, that if the state is to be alleged as favouring one religion – then to minimise the proximity, it can also move towards other religions. These “equalising steps” may be justified on the basis that they are “soothing the religious communities”[2], however in practice it just means that the state is becoming more and more embroiled in religion and religious conflict (Varshney, 2002, p.80).

Since the Hindu majoritarian movement began to gain prominence in the mid 1980’s, secularism has become increasingly embroiled in political battles concerning the designation of vulnerable communities, the distribution of resources, and benefits, and the protection of cultural, and religious minorities.  In the 1990’s the voices of the Hindu nationalists were becoming increasingly “mainstream” in the public sphere. The 1985 Shah Bono Case and the subsequent overturning of the verdict by Rajeev Gandhi, and the 1991 exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley were presented by the Nationalist parties as a “mirror of the anxieties of the Indian middle classes, who felt themselves vulnerable to increasing mobilisation among minority and impoverished classes. The Babri Masjid controversy also enabled Hindu nationalist political parties to strengthen their claim as defenders of national boundaries and national interests in India” (Duschinsky, 2008). 

            The Hindu right in India has capitalised on the instability that the confusion over the term secularism has created – and used it to pursue an exclusionary social agenda. The idea of the nation here, is one that belongs to the majority. This is reflected in the party’s present rhetoric through ghar wapsi, love jihad, beef ban, renaming cities, etc. What is interesting to note however, is that this inward looking socio-political rhetoric is juxtaposed against an outward neoliberal economic philosophy. This is particular, I argue to developing societies – most “developed” nations – the U.S, Germany, etc who have also experienced increasing trends in right-wing majoritarianism, have both an inward looking social and economic philosophy. This is because in developing and post-colonial states, it is almost impossible to ensure development without opening economic barriers and borders. It is no coincidence that the rise of the BJP began in the 1990’s – the era of economic liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation. 

It is fascinating, how the emphasis on (economic) development largely drawing upon the “Gujarat model” has allowed Modi to transcend his deeply problematic past as the “butcher of Gujarat”. One of the main reasons for this, has been Modi’s phenomenal direct reach to his electorate via social media. These platforms have the ability to disseminate religious messages within a larger ecology – often presenting the political leader as the public face of an ideological and moral higher ground. Further, social media can be used as a means to translate radical ideas into populist ones, as extremist parties try to normalise by sanitising histories of their more radical leanings. The growing strength of social media coupled with a loss of trust in traditional modes of information has served information has served the populist agenda well. The election of Narendra Modi in 2014, not only represented the BJP’s first majority win since its founding in 1980, but as Govil and Baishya (2018) note it also “marked the consolidation of a technocratic power that aligned traditional political knowledge with digital affordances” (p.4). I argue, however, that despite the physical nearness to the electorate that had not been experienced before, there was also a marked separation – most clearly evidenced from the lack of formal press conferences. 

Further despite this communication with the electorate, Modi has maintained silence on certain key issues, notably gender. At the beginning of the year, when there was mass outrage regarding the case of Asifa, an eight year old Kashmiri Muslim child who was raped and murdered; and towards the end of the year when the #Metoo movement gained mass traction, and BJP MP, MJ Akbar was accused – Modi maintained a telling silence. While the BJP has focussed on gender through programs such as “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” these programs still maintain a patriarchal language that assumes women need ‘protection’. Some scholars such as Purewal (2015) go further and argue that that these social campaigns and financial schemes further entrench women and girls as “dependents”. This violence is not only an outcome of Hindutva social and political processes, rather it is also a core feature of this form of governmentality. 

            In conclusion, there are certain specific historic conditions in India that have enabled the rise of Hindu majoritarian politics. I argue that disputes over the term secularism, and the (contradictory?) manner in which it was defined in the constitution and practiced in the public sphere gave space to Hindu nationalists to criticise the existing form of governmentality, and present their own notions of secularism as an antithesis. Further while nationalism implies an inward looking ideology – both socio-politically and economically (in the West), this has not been the case with regards to Hindu nationalism, which has been inward looking socially, but has maintained a distinct neoliberal outward philosophy. The emphasis on (economic) development in an age of social media which the BJP were able to successfully exploit – allowed Modi to sanitise his problematic past. This “direct communication” with the electorate has replaced formal press conferences, and allowed the Prime Minister to not be questioned and maintain a silence and non-engagement with certain key issues – gender, farmer strikes, lynching cases, it goes on.  

Bibliography

Duschinski, H. 2007. “India Displacing Indians for the Sake of India: Kashmiri Hindu Migrant Vendors and the Secular State.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 30, no. 1 (May 2007): 90-108.

Duschinski, H. 2008. “Survival is Now Our Politics: Kashmiri Hindu Community Identity and the Politics of Homeland.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 12, no. 1 (April 2008): 41-64. 

Govil,N., Baishya, A.K; The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-wing Populist Technoculture, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1 March 2018, Pages 67–84, https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcx001

Purewal, N., 2015. Interrogating the rights discourse on girls’ education: neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and the post-Beijing platform for action. IDS Bulletin, 46(4), pp. 47–53.

Varshney, A. (2002), Ethnic conflict and civic life: Hindus and Muslims in India. New haven, CT: Yale University Press


[1] Till Indira Gandhi’s controversial 42nd Amendment during “Emergency”

[2] A key example of this would be Rajeev Gandhi’s overturning of the Supreme Court verdict in the Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum case (1985). The court delivered a judgment which favoured maintenance being provided to an aggrieved divorced Muslim woman. Rajeev Gandhi gave into the pressure of Muslim Orthodoxy and overturned this verdict by passing a law, whose most controversial feature was the right to maintenance for the period of iddat after the divorce, after which the maintenance onus was to be passed to the woman’s relatives or the wakf board. 

The article is written by Sarojini, research intern with MP Gaurav Gogoi

In conversation with Republic TV

Amidst the campaigning and election fervor in Assam, enjoyed talking to Republic TV in an interview on March 20, 2021. 

Excerpts from the interview

How do you start your day, especially during elections?

I like to start my day with exercise. I believe it helps me stay fit and keeps me fresh. I travel with a yoga mat and a kettlebell. So, wherever I am, I alternate between yoga and weight training.

What do you have for breakfast?

I like to eat a light breakfast- a banana, boiled egg or roti-sabzi if we are travelling. Lunch is usually a heavy meal, en route, while travelling. Followed by a light meal for dinner. 

You spend your day meeting people, what are the issues they talk about?

They talk about struggle- economic conditions are difficult; prices are rising for all commodities. However, it is amazing to see that despite the struggle, everybody remains positive. We are hopeful for better days.  

We are all trying to make the best of what we have, whether it’s a shopkeeper or me, as a representative of people in the Parliament. The current situation is not great, but all our heads are held high and we continue to live a life of dignity working towards a better future. 

What do you prefer for lunch?

I am a foodie and an Assamese. So, if you give me rice, dal, fish and plain vegetables, I am more than happy. As a kid, I was happy with rice, dal and aloo pitika (boiled mashed potato with mustard oil). We are a family of foodies- my father, mother, sister, all of us. Food is an extremely important part of our lives. 

How would you describe your journey from the corporate sector to politics?

I was always concerned about the development, public service. I was always interested in economics and politics, in young people, rural areas. The world around me has changed and the incentive has changed. When I was in the corporate sector the incentive was profit and in the non-profit sector the incentive was government policies. Now, in politics the world is much larger, you have to think about about industry, farmers, laws, culture. The canvas and the number of subjects which one needs to grasp in order to have a proper roadmap is much larger.

What role did your father, former CM of Assam Tarun Gogoi play in your political career?

I joined politics after my masters and when you are young you tend to get overconfident with the knowledge and experience. I was very overconfident about my ideas about the development of Assam. I am inspired by my father’s work. We used to have constructive debates with each other and I would clash with him on his views regarding development. But even now, after about five years of quitting his chief ministership, I still find his ideas much more relevant than my ideas and I have begun to appreciate his ideas. I have my master’s degree, but his years of experience and spending time with common people- having genuine human connection and conversation with people did teach him what Assam is and the kind of development it needs, the type of politics that can keep Assam united. He mentored me then and even now my memories of him continue to guide my work. 

Where do you derive your energy from, especially in addressing rallies throughout the day?

From the people. Anyone who likes working with people gets their energy from being around people. It is, in fact, a collective effort, I try to give energy to people while deriving energy from them, creating positive energy as a society. We talk about positive changes, hope, solutions, ‘what we can do’ which creates optimism. This optimism drives all of us giving us energy. 

Are you passionate about sports like your father? 

I love to play all forms of sports. During the Jatre, I always stop by a volleyball net, a badminton net, or a football, cricket game. I personally like playing cricket and tennis. I am also passionate about long distance running. I have run several half-marathons in the past. I appreciate how sports teach us hard work, team work and dealing with victory and loss. 

What is your vision for the state of Assam?

Assam is a part of the North-east where our Ecology is very unique, pristine and not as urbanised as the rest of India. My vision for the Assam is to preserve the ecology, culture and at the same time also ensure modernisation in terms of infrastructure, opportunities for youth. I have great hopes for Assam

What is your weakness?

I am still quite young, I have a lot of learn and a lot of achieve. I need to put in a lot more work, gain more experience. I learn the best by listening, so, I need to listen more. 

What is your strength?

The ability to listen. I am quite patient and genuinely listen to people. I love travelling, meeting people, each with their own unique story and experiences. For instance- a businessman talking about launching his business, a doctor talking about the latest innovation in medicine or a sportsperson discussing how they prepare. I listen a lot and I am able to integrate these conversations and lessons in my work. 

How would you transform Assam and India?

Our economic model has to change, especially because of climate change, we have to come up with a new economic model that preserves and protects the ecology and environment. It is not a question about environment vs development. A new model that protects the environment, creates jobs and does not displace people from villages. At the same time, everybody is included irrespective of caste, community, gender, race or any other form of orientation. Where everybody feels the country belongs to them and feels safe to wear what they want, believe want they want, say what they want and are safe under the rights guaranteed to them by the Indian constitution. 

We, The Opposition

As a public policy student more than a decade ago during my time in Israel, I witnessed widespread farmer protests. These farmers were protesting the loss of land due to encroachments in the West Bank. These protests highlighted to me, the need for a structural Opposition for effectuating democratic rights of common people against the excesses of the government. Unfortunately, participation in such protests today could land me behind bars. And it makes me wonder whether this is the democracy we dreamt of as an independent India in 1947. 

Democracy has come to mean the loudest voice and the strongest push, often pictured to be a bout between political parties. It is, however, not intended to be about making the government’s job easier or about making the Opposition more prominent. It is supposed to be about the people’s interests, which are best served in an accountable, transparent and responsible governance ecosystem. It is about the public and creating public good, whether it is achieved through executive action or through the Opposition amplifying concerns against the government – as long as the ends of public good are attained. That’s the essence of democracy – regardless of political gains or losses, it is the public good that is fostered and the public that benefits.

Democracy is about consensus and stakeholder involvement. Stakeholders have to be brought to the table to negotiate and to work out a consensus, a win-win formula. The intention must be to achieve consensus, because consensus has brought about advancement and kinship to the country rather than tearing it apart. Consensus has ensured that we extol ‘because of diversity’ rather than ‘in spite of diversity’. It has made the largest democracy in the world also the most vibrant one. A democracy cannot be vibrant if there is no consensus, if people don’t have a voice. There are countries in parts of the world which have only one dominant party, which cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be called vibrant democracies. We are a vibrant democracy because opposing views are given the space not just to exist, but to thrive and have meaningful consequence. 

Recounting an example close to home, the Assam Accord of 1985 was preceded by rampant protests. But what differentiated that experience was the government’s inclination and willingness to reach a solution through stakeholder participation. Stakeholders were invited to the discussion and negotiation was initiated and pursued, finally leading to the Assam Accord of 1985. While protests remain an inevitable and desirable feature of democracies, the true hallmark of a healthy democracy lies in the treatment of such protestors, whether they are branded and disenfranchised or involved and included. 

Opposition today 

The Constituent Assembly debates provide for a recognised Opposition in the Parliament. It is interesting to note that the debates document the necessity of a recognised Opposition to legitimise criticism of the government. As a young independent nation, conditioned to salute the establishment, India needed a robust Opposition to make it a thriving democracy. It is critical, especially in today’s context, that the government realise its role as the government of a democracy and be willing to lose its rigid political character for public welfare.

To understand the meaning and role of Opposition today, it is imperative to look closely at the challenges it faces. India is witnessing a new era of power, where the narrative is driven by a cartel of those who wield influence. The government appears to be in a symbiotic relationship with the media and the corporate giants, where all actors seek to benefit from such a relationship. The government reinforces selective stories via media, muzzling the news that reports unfavourable events, while the media stands to increase TRPs by reporting exclusive news. Complementarily, the big industry drives government policies for its profit, often deprioritising issues like the environment and displacement of natives while the government employs them to propel their narrative. Such a relationship could be used for public welfare, but is instead exploited only for electoral gains. 

To effectively respond to this echo chamber of the mighty, the idea of Opposition needs to go beyond the traditional understanding. It needs to include all actors on the spectrum- the civil society, digital media, academia and courts, the reflection of which was visible in the nation’s protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. Millions of people took to the streets in voicing their discontentment across the length and breadth of the country. While the Opposition made itself heard in the Parliament, the civil society and academia also marked their dissent. Social media was pivotal in reaching out to the masses and provided a wider platform for engagement on the cause. This collective effort will be key to diversifying Opposition. 

In the current political context, the Opposition is tasked with taking on cartelised intimidation and expanding threat by the government. It has therefore, become necessary for the Opposition to take greater risks and converge its energies. While a grand alliance is not necessary, the Opposition should hold out an olive branch and move beyond running down each other. It should aim for increased public awareness- channelizing its resources in informing the public of the big government’s ploy and intensifying dictatorial regime. It is paramount that the Opposition rally for the people’s rights- amplifying the people’s voices and creating awareness to facilitate informed choice. 

For our democracy to function effectively, it is essential for the Opposition to think outside the box in responding to executive outreach. The government’s proclivity to authoritarianism necessitates an assertive Opposition, one that is focused on creating public awareness and tempering the government’s arbitrary outlook, while also ideating solutions to new-age problems.

Decentralisation of Indian democracy

In 507BC, Rome witnessed the emergence of a political system that would continue to govern the world in 21st century. Democracy has evolved from a modest show of hands to today’s elaborate multi-party system, preserving the value of people’s participation at its core. Today, as the world faces complexities of governance, India shoulders a higher burden of realising the true meaning of a democracy as the world’s largest democracy. India, as the land of diversity should labour to realise the value of democracy in letter and spirit by decentralisation, multi-sectoral collaboration and citizen participation in governance.

Policies are a primary tool of governance. An efficient policy relies on its ability benefit the first and last stakeholder alike. To ensure benefit reaches the last stakeholder, decentralisation is imperative. The rationale of decentralisation is to propel participatory governance and realise the true meaning of democracy. With the 73rd and 74th Amendment of the Constitution reinstating the significance of decentralisation in a successful democracy, there is a need to empower local governments with necessary funds, resources and trained manpower. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic reiterated the need for a collaborative approach and need for decentralised actions to address the issue comprehensively.

The Government should strive to enhance local governance at the block and panchayat level by promoting multi-sectoral collaborations. Steps should be taken to integrate local governments via technology platforms. This integration is essential to maintain speed with the rapidly evolving world of technology, while also improving access to information and resources for local governments. Technology platforms will allow real-time information sharing and exchange of domain knowledge and data between different governments and stakeholders. Furthermore, avenues of collaboration with academia and civil society with local government should be explored. 

Collaboration with academia provides an opportunity to augment citizen participation in governance. While conventionally, governments are known to collaborate with national and international universities, collaboration at the local level remains untapped. Policies will significantly benefit from local government colleges that are situated in the midst of its stakeholders. The physical proximity allows these colleges to access real-time information and on-ground data regularly. This information aids dedicated research and evaluations, which can be further deployed in aiding governance in the area. Subject experts, academicians, scholars and students can be engaged to design road-maps and other strategies of implementation in a specific area. Not only will these local government colleges add to the academic exercise of policy design and implementation but will also provide an academic perspective in tandem with ground realities. Collaborations should be encouraged by incentivizing research at local universities in the form of funding and dedicated budget allocations by governments at national and state levels. 

Another route to achieve effective governance and enhance participation, is to engage with members of civil society including NGOs, retired government officers and public intellectuals. Members of civil society are pivotal in ensuring that welfare reaches the most vulnerable stakeholder. Owing to its diverse population, India is home to a multitude of robust civil societies. Numerous NGOs and organisations employ resources and research to dedicated fields- several work for the cause of child education, while others champion the cause of climate change and air pollution. As an organization outside the traditional governance system, they are able to lend a different lens to view conventional problems. This perspective is instrumental in designing innovative solutions to common challenges. Furthermore, local administration will significantly benefit from the experience of retired government officers and other public intellectuals. It is imperative that members of civil society be engaged with the local administration at panchayat and block level to address the specific needs of a region. Partnerships with members of civil society should be encouraged to effectuate policies and ensure benefit to all stakeholders at the grass-root level. 

Moreover, it is essential to account for efficient implementation on ground to ensure that benefits reach all stakeholders a policy seeks to benefit. As government officers at the panchayat, sub-division and district level play a crucial role in effectuating policies, it is essential that regular capacity building exercises be conducted. Given the size and diversity of India’s population, there is a demand for diverse and dynamic policies which may often require specialised knowledge. Capacity building exercises have the ability to equip government officers with the relevant information and expertise. Specialised fields such as air pollution, wildlife conservation, etc. demand technical know-how and specific skills for coherent governance. For instance, Word Wildlife Fund collaborates with forest enforcement agencies to provide expert assistance and training of government officers. Capacity building exercises are a regular feature at the national and state levels, there is a need to extend this framework to panchayat, sub-division and district administration. Understanding the value of grass-root change and policy implementation, it is necessary to engage experts from the academia, national and international organisations with governments at these levels. This will boost exchange of ideas and expertise while also ensuring increased citizen participation in governance. 

The far-reaching benefits of powerful local governance are undisputed. To ensure effective decentralisation and strong local governance, steps should be taken to enhance local governments’ access to funds and resources, in form of collaborations with academia, civil societies, technology integration while also extending capacity building framework for a robust workforce. In strengthening local governance and incentivizing citizen participation, the federal structure of India will be fortified and the principles of democracy will be reinforced. 

Supplementary Demand for Grants- Another withdrawal without accountability

India is in a state of unprecedented crisis. The challenges include the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese aggression on our borders and most importantly, the poor state of the economy. It is pertinent to highlight Prime Minister Modi’s concern as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in November 2013 when he said, “the economy is in trouble, youth want jobs, devote more time to economics, not petty politics.” Ironically, under his leadership as the Prime Minister of India, the country has seen the steepest GDP fall of minus 23.4% in the last quarter.

No other nation in the world has witnessed such a failure in political leadership. India has witnessed the strictest lockdown, smallest fiscal stimulus, highest inflation rate and the steepest GDP crash. But the headlines continue to be diverted by lofty promises such as the 20,000 lakh crore package or the death of an actor. 

It is important to take a closer look at the PM Modi’s economic package:

  • Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana – Rs 2814 crore package for 2.81 crore beneficiaries – translating to Rs 1000 per person
  • Jan Dhan Yojana – Rs 30,925 crore for 20.6 crore – translating to Rs 1500 for 3 months i.e. Rs 500 per month
  • Migrant labourers – 2.67 lakh metric ton for 2.66 crore persons over 2 months –translating to 5kg of grains per month.

The benefits announced are so meagre that they will not even qualify as a relief package, much less be described as a stimulus. Disappointingly, the BJP Finance Minister has refused to take responsibility and instead put the blame on an Act of God. The BJP government is blind to the fact that the economy has been on a constant decline since demonetisation in 2016. The GDP has been slipping quarter by quarter, and the rising unemployment prior to the pandemic is a clear indicator of this government’s failure. 

The latest CAG reports highlighting the Government’s effort to mask the despicable state of the economy reveal that the Government is not only mismanaging, but also lying. This is supplemented with the abdication of responsibility towards states. The Finance Minister had initially tried to push the burden of GST shortfall on the states, leaving financially weak state governments no real choice but to borrow. As suggested in my speech in the Parliament on September 18, 2020, the Central Government, instead of pushing burdens, should relax the norms under the FRBM Act and borrow from the global market and take international assistance from IMF, WB and ADB. 

The bill for Supplementary Demands was introduced to withdraw from the Consolidated Fund of India without accounting for the needs of the states, especially the state of Assam. The people of Assam have categorically opposed privatisation and selling of the LokPriya Gopinath Bordoloi Airport and the oil fields, and the proposal sale of the Hindustan Paper Mills in Cachar and Nagaon. While the dedicated Ministry of Jal Shakti failed to visit the flooded state of Assam earlier this year, the establishment of the the second Sainik School in Golaghat and the preparation of DPR for the bridges over the Brahmaputra connecting Sivasagar-North Lakimpur and Jorhat with Majuli also remains ignored. Hospitals in Assam still face a shortage of beds, ventilators and emergency medical equipment.

Where India has adopted the unique strategy to bang thalis and light diyas, the Chancellor of Germany has flattened the COVID-19 curve in her country, Prime Minister of New Zealand has implemented one of the most successful lockdowns in the world and the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has introduced the furlough scheme transferring directly to companies to retain workers, mitigating the unemployment crisis. In the USA, President Trump blew up a minor trade dispute with China into an all-out trade war, resulting in China granting several concessions. 

The definition of Nationalism perpetrated by the BJP Government is the protection of an individual’s image, not the nation’s well-being. While the nation suffers and the Parliament discussed the crises strangling the country, the Prime Minister’s absence from the Parliament was noteworthy. All the evidence suggests that the gospel of ‘One Man, One Saviour’ has completely failed the economy and the nation.

Therefore, in light of the ongoing crisis and utter failure of this Government, there is a need to constitute an Emergency Economy and Finance Recovery Council similar to the GST Council. Such a council will include state finance ministers, along with former Union Finance Ministers like Mr. Yashwant Singh and Mr. P Chidambaram. This council should be steered by the person who led India out of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, the former Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. There is an urgent need to switch gears and allow for a collective effort through consensus and dialogue. 

Amendment to FCRA- Another attempt to curb dissent

The Government introduced the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2020 in the monsoon session. As mentioned in the speech in the Parliament on September 21, 2020, the intention to strengthen national security and encourage good governance of NGOs is appreciable, but should not become the pretext for silencing dissent and critics of the BJP government.

There may exist a few NGOs indulging in dubious practices, but in trying to prevent these selected few, the Union Home Minister Shri Amit Shah seeks to tarnish all the NGOs who are doing a yeoman service during Covid-19, floods and rising unemployment.

The most harmful element of the bill is the amendment of Section 8(1), which reduces the limit of foreign contribution to be used for administrative expenses from the existing 50% to an arbitrary 20%. This step is completely arbitrary, and it’s noteworthy that the Central Government would never put limits on the administrative expenses of private companies or on the salaries of big CEOs. As also illustrated in the post on the Companies (Amendment) Bill, the Central Government has a striking proclivity to help the big corporates at the cost of farmers, labourers and now NGOs and such organisations. 

There are two primary problems with this reduction. Firstly, it is a figure declared without any supporting data or reasoning. Additionally, a procedural decision which concerns the donor’s money should be left to the donor’s discretion. By providing a limit, the Government has not only taken away space for decision from the donor-donee relationship but also attempted to micro manage these organisations. 

Secondly, the definition of ‘administrative expenses’ under Rule 5 of FCRR, 2011 includes rent, salaries of the management, volunteers, travel expenses, legal fees, among other expenses, which means that a majority of an association’s functions fall under the definition. This expansive definition and reduction of allowance poses a two-fold challenge. NGOs and organisations are fundamentally involved in vocational training and capacity-building exercises, training expenses are also under the ambit of ‘administrative expenses’, thus restricting the funds that can be utilised for this purpose. Numerous NGOs have also expressed concerns of closure and loss of talented staff as salaries and charges for professional staff also fall under the same definition. 

Additionally, despite the Supreme Court judgement, K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India and vehement protest in the Parliament, the new Section 12A mandates the provision of Aadhar for registration and renewal of registration. The same section provides for passport and the OCI card for foreigners. While mandating Aadhar, it differentiates between two Government issued documents of identity; passport and Aadhar—thereby, bringing into question the validity and veracity of the passport.

The other provision which will prove to be a nightmare is the mandatory requirement to have FCRA bank accounts in a Government notified SBI branch in New Delhi. This will be a logistical ordeal for NGOs and organisations working in distant parts of the country with existing functional FCRA bank accounts in accordance with the unamended Section 17. This amendment comes with a lack of explanation or reason, posing a question on capabilities of other banks. Furthermore, former Section 13 of the act has been amended to provide for an extra 180 days of suspension of certificate over and above the existing 180 days, making it a total of 360 days. 

In addition to the glaring fault lines, the amendment also arms the Government to curb opposition, both political and otherwise. As is evident from the trending headlines, opposition of any kind is being smothered. This comes in the backdrop of a chargesheet being filed against Senior Leader of Congress and designated Senior Advocate, Mr. Salman Khurshid for charges relating to the CAA protests earlier in February.  The amended Section 11 creates space for Central Government to target organisations arbitrarily and also freeze their accounts without a final decision. 

NGOs and welfare organisations play a pivotal part in effectuating the trickle-down phenomenon, aiding development at the grass-roots. Especially— in the time of this raging pandemic, these organisations have become even more relevant and necessary. By virtue of this amendment not only will the smaller NGOs be forced to shut down but the ones that stay afloat will have to immensely compromise on their operations. In an attempt to weed out the few, clipping wings of a system that works to fill gaps that policies may leave —is not only short-sighted but also immensely dangerous. The Government should work with donor agencies to keep a check on suspected NGOs, instead of stifling the operations of NGOs indiscriminately. 

In light of the principles of deliberative democracy and the glaring issues affecting NGOs and other organisations, the Bill necessitates a Standing Committee consideration. It will not only respect the conventional legislative process, which has been outrightly disregarded, but also, provide the space for dialogue and constructive deliberation between the stakeholders and the Government.

Anti- Farmer Legislations

The three Bills – Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance Bill, 2020 and The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion & Facilitation) Bill, 2020 passed in the Parliament during the monsoon session are not only against the federal structure of India, but also have the ability to spell doom on farmers. 

The Amendment deprives states of their ability to regulate prices after the deregulation of commodities under Essential Commodities Act, 1955. Additionally, the other two Bills legislate on Agriculture, which is the 14th Entry in the State List under the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, the Bills override the existing APMC laws in states and prohibit collection of market fee, cess or levy on farmers and traders by the State Governments. All these changes have been made without any consultation with the states, thereby, contravening the spirit of federalism in the country. 

The lack of a stock limit under Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 allows corporates and traders with capacity and resources to hoard the commodities. Hoarding of these commodities will allow them to manipulate the market. Shortage of supply created by such hoarding will have two adverse consequences: firstly, it will cause the prices to rise exorbitantly in the absence of regulation. Secondly, it will incentivise the expansion of black market of these commodities. 

Furthermore, contract farming has been provided for, without safeguards. The Bill provides for a mutually agreed arrangement between the farmer and buyer. This will include price and redressal mechanism within its terms, completely eliminating the requirement of an MSP (Minimum Support Price) and standard redressal system. In the absence of an MSP, sponsors are likely to negotiate for lowest prices, leading to exploitation of farmers. Moreover, the sponsor can also exploit the farmer’s lack of legal understanding to include conditional terms that will further decrease prices. This coupled with the lack of a standard redressal mechanism will lead to severe exploitation of farmers.  

The new provisions will pave way for increased presence of corporations and traders in the agriculture sector without Government regulation. In this exercise of allowing free market, the worst hit stakeholders will be the small and marginal farmers. These farmers rely heavily on Government interventions like MSP and public procurement. Moreover, the exemption from a stock limit under The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill opens the scope for hoarding and manipulation of prices, therefore, increasing the exploitation of such farmers. 

BJP’s concessions to big businesses

The Companies (Amendment) Bill introduced in the monsoon session amends the Companies Act, 2013.

The primary objective of this Bill is to decriminalise certain offences to omit imprisonment and fine. It also reduces the quantum of fine payable as penalty for certain offences. For instance, penalty under Section 92 of the Act has been reduced by more than half. This Amendment adds to an existing pattern of this Government’s legislations. It comes in succession to the Land Acquisition Bill 2014, Labour Code reforms, reduction of Corporate Tax, privatisation of utilities like the airports, and the latest provision of contract farming under the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. There is a glaring pattern of benefitting the corporates in these legislations- offences under the Companies Acts are decriminalised, tax rate has been reduced, labour codes have been reformed to suit the Corporate needs, contract farming has given the Corporates an inlet into the farming sector, land acquisition has further allowed the acquisition of farmer’s land.  

In this barter of benefits, the Government has benefitted Corporate India unevenly. As highlighted in the speech on September 19, 2020, it is important to evaluate what Corporate India has paid in return. On the subject of decriminalising offences, let’s remember the case of ICICI and the example of YES Bank. Corporate giants like Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi are still not residing in the country. Additionally, the striking reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 22% by the amendments in 2019 to the Income Tax Act, 1961 (IT Act), and the Finance (No. 2) Act, 2019 has not yielded results either. It has caused a gaping dent in the Government’s revenue estimated at 1.45 lakh crore, increasing the fiscal deficit from 3.3% to 4% (2019-20), without boosting private investment or jobs. Moreover, the labour laws are being reformed in the wake of increasing unemployment, which is aggravated by the Corporates firing employees garbed in the excuse of the pandemic. 

For all these reasons, the Government is urged to exercise prudence while bringing this Amendment and ensure that Corporate India creates jobs, investment and practices clean business. 

PM-CARES Fund vs. Prime Minister’s Relief Fund (PMNRF)

Speech made on September 19, 2020 during the consideration of the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020.

In the latest amendment to the Income Tax Act, 1961 under the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020, the Government has granted the PM-CARES fund a 100% deduction under Section 80G.

The relaxation under Section 80G is yet another benefit extended to a fund riddled with questions and silences. It succeeds a notification that allows donations to the fund to qualify as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) expenditure under the Companies Act, 2013. It is also exempted under the FCRA, allowing it to receive foreign donations without regulation. 

The primary question the Government has failed to answer is the need for a new fund. The objectives of PMNRF and PM-CARES are overlapping and there exists no special provision distinguishing the PM-CARES fund. In fact, the PMNRF has been used by Prime Minsters across various political parties including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee since its constitution. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has announced relief from the PMNRF on multiple occasions, including floods in Bihar, cyclone Okhi in 2017 and cyclone Fani in 2019 among many others. 

PMNRF has always remained devoid of any political character- being used similarly by Prime Minsters across various political parties. It is unfortunate that a fund used by Prime Ministers of all political affiliations until date, has now acquired a political character, only to mask the irregularities of the new PM-CARES fund. While the Government repeatedly points out similarities in the two funds to deflect important questions, it then fails to address the need for a new fund. 

It is pertinent for the Government to clarify the inflow and outflow of money in the PM-CARES fund. Especially, in light of numerous Chinese companies and Indian Companies funded majorly by China pledging donations to the fund. The Government cannot claim to be reducing bilateral relationships by banning Chinese apps and yet accepting magnanimous donations from Chinese giants. Where the inflow casts serious doubt on the integrity of the Government, there are equally alarming signs on the outflow. As also pointed out in the speech on September 19, 2020, the lack of any information with regard to the Daman ventilators bought from the PM-CARES fund, that caught fire burning people alive, in Rajkot adds to the opacity of an already controversial fund. 

While the Government deflects important questions, it engages in whataboutery. While it alleges the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation despite its duly audited and filed reports, statutory and Income Tax Act returns, it maintains radio silence on the Vivekananda Foundation, India Foundation and Overseas friends of the BJP.

Mapping China’s Standing in the Times of Covid-19

Over the past few years the tensions between United States and China have engulfed the major and emerging countries across the world. The US-China relationship has surely evolved from the bonhomie during Nixon-Kissinger years to the Asia Pivot under Bush-Obama years-to finally an all-out trade war under Trump-Xi Jiping. Within this context, there is a larger, growing consensus surrounding the United States’ retreat from global politics. This is in tandem with the USA’s previous international diplomatic abstentions, including withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change treaty, pulling out of Aghanistan, reworking NAFTA, or issuing statements against the WHO, NATO, and the UN. The gradual retreat of the United States creates a vacuum for global leadership which China is happily to step into. During the Covid-19 crisis, when President Trump threatened to cut off funding of the World Health Organization, then China responded by granting an additional $2 billion in funding.

However, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, one realization has become widespread- that countries all over the world have become increasingly dependent on China. For instance, in Japan, China is the key source of importing protective equipment, contributing to mostly all of the 70-80% of imports in surgical masks. When Italy sought help for medical equipment, then China publicly committed to sending 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits. Similarly, China’s share of the U.S. antibiotics market is more than 95 percent, and most of the ingredients cannot be manufactured domestically. The situation is a dramatic reversal from the time when the Ebola crisis was prevalent. Then the United States rallied the global effort to fight the epidemic and support the cash-starved countries of Africa.

Due to this drastic change in global affairs, it is likely that others nations will maintain comfortable relations with both United States and China. This is because, for most nations across the world, partnership in defence and strategic affairs with the US is complementary to a trade and commercial partnership with China. Simultaneously several nations will attempt to get out of the import-trap with China and drive up their local manufacturing sector. The Japanese Government has now started working with more than 400 domestic companies to bolster domestic production. Globally, concerns have been raised about Chinese companies using this opportunity to buy up distressed assets at cheap rates. . The European Commission had called upon its member states to ensure protection of strategic assets from a likely Chinese takeover. Following suit, Australia is also taking precautionary measures aimed at preventing sales of distressed corporate assets during the coronavirus crisis.

It is undeniable that the next few years will be pivotal in determining the shift of the global order and exactly how China weathers the diplomatic and economic setback its suffered at the hands of a very indigenous virus.