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KERALA LETTER
"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen

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22 May, 2018

South halts Hindutva march

BRP Bhaskar

A determined bid by the Bharatiya Janata Party to seize power in Karnataka was blocked by the opposition last week, aided by judicial intervention, putting paid to Hindutva’s plan to extend its foothold to the South, at least for the time being.

Although the BJP has outgrown its northern base and spread across the country, the South remains inhospitable to it. The party views Karnataka, where it came to power once before, as its gateway to the South.

The Congress was in power in the state during the last five years, and since every election in the state in the recent past has led to change of government, the BJP believed it could take the state.

BJP President Amit Shah, who is reputedly a master strategist, began working on plans to storm Karnataka six months ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the party’s campaign. It drafted also the services of a host of Central ministers and state chief ministers. Its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, deployed its cadres for booth-level activity.

With an eye on the powerful Lingayat community, the BJP projected BS Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate even though he had attracted corruption charges when he held the post last time. 

The Congress party’s campaign was led by its president, Rahul Gandhi, who, as is his wont, incorporated temple visits in his tour. Hoping to wean away a section of the Lingayats from the BJP, the outgoing Congress government endorsed the demand for recognition of the community as a separate religious group. The tactic did not hurt Yeddyurappa, who had personally backed that demand at one time.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s strategy probably harmed the Congress further by precipitating consolidation of the Vokkaliga community, the Lingayats’ traditional rivals in caste politics, behind the Janata Dal (Secular), led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son and former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy. 

When counting of votes began last Tuesday, the BJP established an early lead and appeared well set to win a majority in the new Assembly. But it ended up with only 103 seats, nine short of an absolute majority.

However, the BJP was the only party to increase its strength. It now had 63 seats more than in the last Assembly. The Congress won 78 seats, 44 less than last time, and the JD(S) 37, three less than last time.

When it became clear that the BJP will fall short of a majority, the Congress offered unconditional support to a government headed by Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). The two parties conveyed to Governor Vaijubhai Vala their decision to work together. The BJP, as the largest single party, also staked a claim to form the government.

With a combined strength of 115, the JD(S)-Congress alliance had a clear majority. Yet Vala, an old RSS hand who was Modi’s Cabinet colleague in Gujarat, rejected their claim and appointed Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister. He gave him a fortnight to prove majority in the house.

Since there were not enough small parties and independents with whose support the BJP could cobble up a majority, Vala’s action amounted to giving the party an opportunity to poach members from the Congress and the JD(S). 

The two parties jointly approached the Supreme Court against Vala’s partisan decision. At an urgent hearing, the court sidestepped the legal and constitutional issues raised by the petitioners and ordered that the majority be tested on the floor of the house the very next day.

The Governor’s choice of a former BJP Speaker with an unsavoury record to conduct the assembly proceedings raised fears of possible mischief. However, the court’s directives to hold a secret ballot and telecast the proceedings live limited the scope for motivated manoeuvres. 

Even as the MLAs gathered for the session, the Congress released five tapes of conversations in which BJP leaders offered inducements to its members.

Realising that the game was up, Yeddyurappa resigned without facing the floor test. The Governor later invited Kumaraswamy to form the government.

Making sense of a fractured electoral verdict is not easy. There is merit in the BJP’s argument that the electoral verdict was against the Congress. But its own claim of a mandate is questionable. The Election Commission’s figures show that the Congress (38.0%) got more votes than the BJP (36.2%).

With a combined vote share of 56.4% the Congress-JD(S) alliance can legitimately claim popular support. But these parties have a history of rivalry and it remains to be seen if they can pull together for long. 

The most important lesson of the Karnataka experience is that secular parties can halt Hindutva advance if they combine forces. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 22, 2018

16 May, 2018

Another fence-mending effort

BRP Bhaskar

A fortnight after the visit to China to re-set relations with that country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Nepal during the weekend on a similar mission.

India always had a special relationship with Nepal, which, apart from being a neighbour, is the only other Hindu-majority country on earth. They have an open border and citizens of the two countries do not need passport and visa to travel from one to the other. 

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party nurses hopes of making India a Hindu nation and he was unhappy when Nepal proclaimed itself a secular republic in 2015, ignoring his appeal to delay the promulgation of the new Constitution. 

Bilateral relations deteriorated when the Modi administration backed the demand by the Madhesis, who are Nepalese of Indian descent, for changes in the Constitution. As the Madhesis resorted to a violent agitation close to the border, free flow of goods to the land-locked country got disrupted. 

The basic framework of India-Nepal relations was set by the British in the colonial period. Apart from its usefulness as a buffer state, Britain cultivated Nepal as a source of Gorkha soldiers for its fighting forces.

The Indian government, as successor to the British colonial administration, retained this framework. The provisions of the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 fit into it. 

Nepal’s political parties now consider it an unequal treaty. Changes in the immediate neighbourhood and the Asian region clearly call for readjustment of relations between the two countries on the basis of equality.

With Nepal going through a phase of political instability, marked by frequent changes of government, there was little forward movement for a few years. Things started looking up last year which saw a spurt in exchange of high-level visits. 

The year also witnessed significant contacts between Nepal and China. Prime Minister Prachanda, who is also head of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), had a meeting with President Xi Junping when he was in China for the Boao Forum for Asia conference. The Chinese and Nepalese armies held a 10-day joint military drill on counter-terrorism and disaster response.

The army chiefs of both India and China were also in Nepal last year.

In the three-level elections which began in 2017 the Left alliance comprising Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and CPN-MC, campaigning on a nationalist plank with anti-India overtones, won a decisive victory, picking up 116 out of 165 seats filled under the first-past-the-post system. 

CPN-UML’s K.P. Singh Oli, who took over as the Prime Minister, is considered pro-China but he said his government would follow an independent policy.

The stage was set for a bid to improve bilateral relations when Modi telephoned Oli and other leaders and felicitated them on the successful conduct of the elections. 

Oli chose India for his first official visit. Before leaving for New Delhi, he told the Nepalese Parliament the visit was aimed at deepening the relations that had subsisted between the two countries since ages.

Official statements that emerged after Oli’s visit to New Delhi and Modi’s visit to Kathmandu indicate that the two sides are moving cautiously. The Indian side was silent on Nepal’s internal issues like the Madhesi problem and the Nepalese side made no mention of the need to revise the 1950 treaty. 

Modi’s initial mishandling of the Madhesi issue helped China to enhance its influence in Nepal, particularly through investment in infrastructure and connectivity projects which will reduce dependence on India for transit trade As the Madhesi agitation hit essential supplies, Nepal turned to China for help. Beijing was ready to help but there were logistical problems as China’s ports and commercial centres are far away. 

Nepal has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, from which India is keeping aloof. But it has also evinced interest in improving connectivity with India through railways and waterways. 

India cannot match China on investments. But, then, China cannot easily displace India as Nepal’s main trading partner. Nepal’s trade with India last year was about $5.9 billion while that with China was only about $900 million. 

Geopolitical realties demand re-casting the relations between the two countries on a new basis. But, while in Nepal, Modi, with an eye to his Hindutva clientele at home, harped on mythological links. A bus service connecting Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, birthplace of Lord Rama, and Sitapur in Nepal, birthplace of his consort, Sita, was started during his visit. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, Nay 16, 2018

08 May, 2018

Testing time for justice system

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

What distinguishes India”s Constitution from those of other democratic countries is the primacy it accords to justice –social, economic and political, listed in that order in its preamble.

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, drew pointed attention to the state of the society and said, “How long shall we deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so labouriously built up.”

He could identify the problem and articulate the solution with clarity as he himself was born in one of the so-called untouchable communities, officially designated as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Members of these communities prefer to be known as Dalits (meaning broken people) and Adivasis (earliest inhabitants). He overcame the disabilities of birth by sheer dint of effort.

Dispossessed and driven to the outbacks or the forests as the Vedic Aryans enforced the caste system, most members of these communities lived in virtual slavery, bereft of human rights.

The Constitution banned untouchability and granted Dalits and Adivasis equal rights with other citizens. However, entrenched prejudices, especially of officials, including police personnel, have effectively denied them the promised equality.

The Census of 2011 put the population of Dalits at 16.2 per cent and that of Adivasis at 8.2 per cent. Continuing social and economic disabilities and organisational weakness have prevented these communities, which account for nearly a quarter of the population, from claiming their due place in the polity.

In the feudal and colonial period, the numerically small Brahmin community, which was at the pinnacle of the caste hierarchy, was their main tormentor. Under the democratic dispensation the numerically strong middle-rung castes, which are now designated Other Backward Classes, have acquired power in many states and pose a greater threat to them than the Brahmins. 

Taking note of the rising incidence of attacks on Dalits and Adivasis, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi enacted in 1989 the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act with some tough provisions. For more than five years it remained a dead letter as successive governments failed to frame rules under it.

The Act listed a series of offences, declared them non-bailable and made it mandatory for the police to register a first information report and arrest the alleged offender on receipt of a complaint from a Dalit or an Adivasi. The normal procedure of holding a preliminary inquiry before arrest was dispensed with in view of the police’s propensity to act in the interests of members of so-called higher castes. 

A few years earlier, Parliament had introduced a similar provision in the Indian Penal Code section dealing with dowry death, taking into account the predominantly male police force’s gender bias. 

Last year a Supreme Court bench, comprising Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit struck down the provision for mandatory arrest in dowry death cases on the ground that it was being misused. A bench presided over by Chief Justce Dipak Misra later overturned that decision.

The legal validity of the SC, ST Atrocities Act was challenged at least on three occasions in the last two decades and each time the Supreme Court upheld it. Last Match, ignoring these precedents, Justices Goel and Lalit struck down the mandatory arrest provision, citing misuse. They also ruled that if the alleged offender is an official he should be arrested only after obtaining the permission of his superior.

The changes the two judges made in the law diluted the provisions Parliament had put in to protect the interests of the weaker party and made it easy for a biased police and bureaucracy to help the offender.

On the face of it, throwing out a legal provision on the ground of misuse betrays an unsound approach. The proper remedy for misuse is to penalise those who make false allegations, for which adequate provisions exist in the law.

The dilution of the Atrocities Act led to angry protests by Dalits in many parts of the country. Human rights defenders pointed out that instances of false complaints are not large enough to justify the scrapping of a salutary provision of the law. The more alarming fact revealed by the official data is that while offences against SCs and STs are increasing the rate of successful prosecution is falling. Therefore, the need of the hour is to strengthen the law, not weaken it. 

A government petition seeking review of the judgment is now before Justices Goel and Lalit. What is on trial is the justice system itself. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 8, 2018

01 May, 2018

India, China change tack

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India and China, currently the main engines of global economic growth, re-tuned their relationship last week shifting the emphasis from confrontation and competition to strategic cooperation and developmental partnership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping announced the re-set after a hectic two-day meet, officially labelled as informal, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

The two leaders talked mostly with no one in attendance except interpreters.

The summit-level meet without the usual formalities was designed to dispel mutual suspicions, build trust and break the stalemate in the relations resulting from last year’s 73-day face-off between the armies of the two countries at Doklam, close to the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction.

Ahead of the meet, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said in a commentary that on the world stage the two countries had more than enough reasons to work closely and with a combined population of 2.6 billion they had a huge potential to tap.

Much of India’s 3,500-kilometre-long border with China is undemarcated. The two countries fought a short but bitter war over the disputed border when Mao Zedong was at the helm in China and Jawaharlal Nehru in India. Talks to resolve the dispute have been going on for decades since then with little progress so far. 

Xi told Modi the issues that divided the two countries were of a limited and temporary nature but their relationship was extensive and ongoing. They were major drivers of world economic growing and good relations between them would help global stability.

Both Xi and Modi agreed that the two countries could handle their differences peacefully.

Modi was so pleased with the success of the informal meet that he offered to host Xi at a second one next year. The India-China informal summit may well become an annual event.

The Wuhan meeting was the fourth between Modi and Xi in four years, not counting the interactions at international events where they came together. It is not surprising that nothing tangible emerged from the tête-à-tête After all, it was an informal affair

“Our leaders have a certain comfort level, they have a certain comfort in being able to communicate frankly, candidly, and we are confident that as we move ahead we will be able to ensure that the mechanisms that are in place work to build on the convergences,” Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the Indian media.

These words echoed the sentiments that prevailed when Nehru and Zhou Enlai proclaimed the Panch Shila, or five principles of co-existence six decades ago. Modi reinforced the mood by floating five principles of his own. 

How the turnaround came about has not been fully explained by either side. India appears to have set the ball rolling in March when it asked officials to stay away from the Tibetan exiles’ celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in this country. Modi later telephoned Xi to congratulate him on his re-election as President.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited China in April. The scheduling of the informal meet immediately after these contacts, without waiting until June when Modi and Xi will come together at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit underscores the importance both sides attach to improvement of bilateral relations.

Some analysts have attributed the Sino-Indian re-set to the realisation by both sides that the confrontationist course had landed them in a no-win situation and that the path of cooperation would benefit both.

There may be no immediate change in India’s coolness towards China’s Road and Belt initiative and China’s negative attitude towards India’s membership of the UN Security Council and Nuclear Supplies Group but if the new resolve holds on both sides the hoped-for Asian Century may yield beneficial results not only for the two countries but for the entire world.

An immediate gain from the talks was the two leaders’ decision to issue “strategic guidance” to their armies to strengthen communications to build trust and enhance predictability and effectiveness in management of border affairs: in short, to avoid a repetition of Doklam.

They also agreed to undertake a joint economic project in Afghanistan.

China is obviously keen to carry Pakistan, its long-time all-weather friend, into the new phase with it. Last December it had hosted a trilateral meeting of Foreign Ministers of China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has invited both India and Pakistan to join the multi-nation counter-terrorism military exercise to be held in Russia in September.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 1, 2018

30 April, 2018

“Suspicions” about Aswathi has makings of a put-up job


The complaint against Aswarhi Jwala on the basis of which Kerala’s Director General of Police has ordered an inquiry has the hallmarks of a put-up job.

Aswathi, a young social worker, whose humanitarian work (which includes distribution of food packets to the needy) has earned her much praise, incurred the wrath of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and DGP Loknath Behra by telling the public about the indifference of the state police to the complaint about the disappearance of Liga Skromane of Latvia who had come to Kerala for Ayurvedic treatment for depression.

Aswathi had been helping Liga’s sister Ilze and partner, Andrew Jordan of Ireland, to trace the missing woman. When they found that the police attitude was not helpful, she took them to the DGP. She said the Chief Minister did not meet them. The Chief Minister explained that he was not in town on the day they tried to meet him.

Andrew Jordan made a quick visit to Dublin and told the Irish media and the Indian embassy there about his unhappy experience in Kerala.

The crux of the allegations levelled against the Kerala police by Ilze, Andrew and Aswathi is that it did not act promptly on the complaint about the missing Liga even after they expressed fears about her safety.

One and a half months later, Liga’s body was found in a highly decomposed state in a mangrove in an area said to be frequented by drug pedlars. The police initially tried to pass it off as a case of suicide. Forensic examination has now compelled it to admit she may have been murdered.

Their indifference thoroughly exposed, the police, it appears, is now working overtime to fix Aswathi so that nobody dares to challenge it again. The CPI (M)’s cyber activists, whose task is to salvage the reputation of the Chief Minister, who is also the Home Minister, is extending the police full support in the cover-up. As part of the effort they have placed on the social media a synopsis of the complaint on the basis of which the DGP ordered the inquiry against Aswathi.

It identifies the complainant as one Anilkumar of Panangode, Kovalam, and lists the following four points said to be in it:

11.   Aswathi Jwala the social worker was with Liga’s relatives from the time of her disappearance. There is suspicion about her intervention in Liga’s murder and collection of Rs 3.8 lakhs in its name.
   2.   Aswathi’s sources of funds must be investigated. There is suspicion about her office and assets in the city. Lakhs of rupees flow into her account every day in connection with the distribution of food packets. She has collected Rs 5000 each from MLAs.
   3.  Recently an advance was given for five acres of land at Ponkulam. Aswathi’s foreign trips and cars also create suspicion.
    4. There is also suspicion about from where so much money came in three years.

If this is a fair synopsis of the complaint, the complainant has actually levelled no allegations against Aswathi. He has merely listed a number of suspicions, and that too without mentioning any ground for the suspicions.

It is easy to make out from the very first suspicion he has listed that what prompted him to come forward with the complaint is Aswathi Jwala’s association with Liga  Scromane’s relatives. He doesn’t give any information in support of his claim – rather, his suspicion -- that she collected Rs 3.8 lakhs in Liga’s name.   

He does not spell out his suspicions about Aswathi’s office and assets. How is it his – or the police’s -- business if some MLAs have given her Rs 5,000 each and people are giving lakhs of rupees for the humanitarian work she is doing?

I find it hard to believe that Loknath Behra, an IPS officer of 33 years' standing is such a simpleton that he treats a communication of this kind as a police complaint and orders an inquiry.

The only reasonable conclusion an intelligent reader can draw is that the complaint is the work of a person who suffers from paranoid personality disorder, which is a mental condition characterized by intense suspicion and mistrust of others.  

Police cooking up documents or evidence is not entirely unknown. But in all likelihood the hand behind this one is not that of the police. A policeman would have produced a  more credible document. My suspicion – yes, suspicion, not allegation – is that it originated in a political establishment of doubtful professional standard.   

As outrage against the vindictive police action against Aswathi surged in public space, party apologists, who have lately been forced to find justification for a plethora of police misdeeds, have trotted out arguments like she has not been questioned, she has not been arrested etc. Even if they don’t know it, the police must know that before acting upon a complaint it has to satisfy itself that it is a genuine complaint, not a string of suspicions of a paranoid person, and that there is sufficient ground to believe a crime may have been committed.

24 April, 2018

Left gets some elbow room

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s Left movement heaved a sigh of relief as the triennial congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), after prolonged discussions, adopted the political resolution drafted by the Politburo with a small but significant change.

Under the party constitution, the congress is the final authority on all matters but it usually accepts without change the formulations drafted by the Politburo and approved by the Central Committee. 

The draft political resolution was prepared by Prakash Karat, who had stepped down as General Secretary three years ago in compliance with the rule that sets a three-term ceiling on the tenure of office-bearers but enjoys more support in the Politburo than his successor, Sitaram Yechury, thanks to the support of the Kerala unit, which is the largest. 

It articulated the Kerala unit’s position that there should be no alliance or understanding with the Congress party to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party, which wields power at the Centre and in many states. This line is predicated on the proposition that the BJP and the Congress are alike since both pursue neoliberal policies.

Kerala had created history by choosing a Communist government through the ballot box in 1957. Since 1980 the state has voted coalitions led by the Congress and the CPI (M) in alternate elections. The state party’s approach is conditioned by the fact that the Congress is its traditional rival for power. 

On several occasions in the recent past Yechury expressed himself in favour of all secular forces, including the Congress, coming together to prevent the BJP’s return to power in next year’s general elections. 

In the organisational report presented to the congress, which is not in the public realm yet, Yechury is believed to have acknowledged that there were differences among the Politburo members on the political line to be adopted towards the Congress party, and this affected political and organisational interventions needed to meet developing situations. 

As party delegates, numbering about 700, gathered at Hyderabad for the congress, there was media speculation on the possibility of the differences between Karat and Yechury leading to a split. 

Addressing the congress, Yechury said neoliberal policies needed to be fought but this could only be done if democratic rights and socialist consciousness remained.

Delegates moved a large number of amendments to the draft resolution. A growing demand for vote by secret ballot is said to have led to softening of the attitude of Karat’s supporters. 

Eventually a compromise was struck. It involved dropping the words “without having an understanding with the Congress party” and retaining the words “without having a political alliance with the Congress party”.

The change will allow the CPI (M) to reach electoral understanding with the Congress party either at national or regional level, without entering into an alliance. 

The compromise smoothened the way for Yechury’s unanimous re-election as General Secretary for a second term. Since Karat and company still dominate the Politburo he may have to look over his shoulders constantly. 

In the early years of Independence, the Communist Party of India was the main opposition group in the Lok Sabha, and it was seen as a possible alternative to the Congress party, which was then the biggest political force.

It lost its primacy in the opposition after the split in 1964 in the wake of the schism in the world communist movement. Disapproving the pro-Soviet stand of the majority of members of the party’s National Council, a minority walked out and formed the CPI (M). 

The two factions adopted contradictory approaches towards the Congress party. The parent body’s pro-Congress attitude led it into supporting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. The CPI(M)’s anti-Congress position made it an unwitting abettor in the rise of Right-wing forces. 

A contrite CPI eventually moved away from the Congress, and the CPI (M), which had emerged as the largest Left party, accommodated it in the alliances under its leadership. 

The CPI(M)’s long monopoly of power in West Bengal and Tripura and its large presence in Kerala helped cloud the fact that the Left has declined nationally. Loss of power in Bengal and Tripura exposed its weaknesses.

The party congress has created some elbow room for the Left in the pre-poll negotiations. But the party needs to arrest its decline and grow nationally to be able to lead a Left revival. Unfortunately, the party congress has failed to draw up an action programme to regain its place at the centre-stage of national politics. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, A-ril 24, 2018.

20 April, 2018

Squint Eye On The Postcard Boys

Can a government be serious about controlling the flow of fake news when its own supporters are among the main originators of misinformation?




                                                                                  


Had it come a day earlier, it could have been Had it come a day earlier, it could have been dismissed as an International Fools Day joke. But the ever-ebullient Smriti Irani, who now presides over the ministry of information and broadcasting, was deadly serious about the April 2 guidelines to check the spread of fake news—and she made it clear in a series of tweets.
The guidelines were brought in as amendme­nts to the rules governing accreditation of jou­rnalists. Actually, they created a law that laid down the procedure to investigate complaints relating to fake news and prescribed the punishment to be awarded to the offenders. The law was beset with several problems. One of them was it assumed, without any justification, that the offenders will be accredited journalists. It is well known that fake news originates and circulates mainly on social media platforms, whose personnel are not entitled to accreditation.
The guidelines entrusted the task of investigating complaints to the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association. The PCI is a body authorised by law to look into complaints against print media and print journalists. The NBA is one of two bodies set up by electronic media organisations, in the name of self-regulation, to look into complaints against TV channels. As former PCI chairman Justice Markandey Katju has said, self-regulation is no regulation. In any case, the NBA’s authority does not extend even to the entire news television segment. Social media organisations, the fountainhead of fake news, do not have a regulatory authority, statutory or non-statutory. The government’s arm that deals with them is the cyber police.
During WW II, the Viceroy’s office in India had imposed a press censorship using a body of newspaper editors in the country.
In less than a day, the ministry withdrew the guidelines, reportedly on the orders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Editors Guild of India, Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Association and the Fede­ration of Press Clubs of India welcomed the retr­action. They conceded there was room for reform of journalistic practices, but felt a solution to the fake news problem did not lie in the government imposing restraints on the media.
The withdrawal of the amended guidelines does not mean the government has abandoned plans to introduce new game rules under the cover of fake news regulation. According to a news agency report, on April 4, the I&B ministry set up a ten-member committee, with its own secretary as the convenor, to recommend an “appropriate policy formulation for online media—news portals and online content platforms, including digital broadcasting, that enco­mpasses entertainment, infotainment and news and media aggregates”. Its members inc­lude the secretaries to the ministries of home and electronics and information technology and the departments of legal affairs, and industrial policy and promotion as well as representatives of PCI, NBA and the Indian Broadcasters Federation, the other non-statutory self-regulatory body of TV channels.
The committee’s terms of reference and composition—notably the preponderance of bur­eaucrats in it—suggest that the government is seeking a mechanism that is wider and more powerful than the PCI. Some news channels are even more enthusiastic purveyors of fake news than shady portals but that does not seem to bother the government one bit. It is quite happy to accept self-regulation in that sector. The reason is not hard to guess. Ownership of television channels is concentrating in the hands of a few corporate entities that are friendly to the government and the lions that roar in the studios are ready to purr and crawl in front of aut­hority. The rigorous exclusion of media professionals from the committee that is to evolve a mechanism to deal with news, opinion and entertainment platforms raises suspicions about the government’s motives.
Can the Modi administration be serious about controlling the flow of fake news when its members and supporters are among those who have been identified by fact-checkers as originators and disseminators of misinformation? Just four days before the I&B ministry issued the fake news regulation, the Karnataka police had arre­sted Mahesh Vikram Hegde, founder-editor of Postcard News, a pro-Modi website, on a charge of circulating a false report alleging Mus­lim youths had attacked a Jain monk in Banga­lore. Hegde also posted a picture of the injured monk in social media. Police said the monk was inj­ured in an accident.
On declaring Emergency, Indira Gandhi enlisted the support of The Hindu’s G. Kasturi, as the editors’ body had lost all authority.
Several BJP leaders, including Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, rushed to the defence of Mahesh. Pratik Sinha of AltNews, a leading buster of fake news, in a report published last May had identified Postcard News as a mass producer of fake news. He backed up the assessment with a partial list of eight false stories it had circulated. Incidentally, Modi and several of his Cabinet colleagues are among Mahesh’s Twitter followers.


The I&B ministry had been working on the idea of regulation of all online activity—not just fake news sites—for some time. In a channel programme last month, Irani had revealed that the government was planning to put in place “a regulatory framework for social media and online content”. But she was unclear about its form and content. Irani said the government would come up with a “code of conduct or legislation” and it would be incumbent upon all agencies to follow it.
One of the grave weaknesses of the current media scene is the absence of credible profe­ssional bodies. While the good intentions of the Delhi-based organisations that come alive at critical moments are not in doubt, their representative capacity is questionable. Back during World War II when press censorship was imp­osed, the viceroy’s administration had the good sense to act in consultation with the All India Newspaper Editors Conference, headed by Kasturi Srinivasan, the widely respected edi­tor of The Hindu. It was the censorship rules of that period that Indira Gandhi activated when she proclaimed the Emergency. The AINEC no longer commanded the authority it once had, and she sought to make up for it by enlisting the support of G. Kasturi, Srinivasan’s successor at The Hindu. Shades of the colonial traditions of media regulation are once again visible with even less professional banking.
The fake news regulation that was quickly withdrawn was a half-baked item from the I&B kitchen, served as a starter. Now there may be no more starters. So we have to wait and find out what the main course tastes like.  (Outlook, April 23, 2018)