The Rajya Sabha on Friday discussed two private members’ Bills to do away with the cap on election spending by candidates and to establish a committee on foreign investment to prevent threats to national security.
Continuing the discussion on the amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, introduced by M.V. Rajeev Gowda of the Congress in the last session, several MPs raised concerns about doing away with the spending limit of ₹70 lakh per candidate.
Opposing the Bill, Rakesh Sinha of the BJP said increasing the limit would not strengthen democracy. Congress member P.L. Punia said the real expenditure on elections was higher than the limits and black money was still prevalent. However, removing the limit would not be right, he said.
Vishambhar Prasad Nishad of the Samajwadi Party raised concerns over “paid news,” saying a media company had approached him to pay ₹20 lakh in exchange for coverage. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao of the BJP said there was money being spent on “illegitimate purposes”, including “paid news”. He said the current limits could be reviewed, with a separate provision to allow media publicity.
The Bill to set up a committee on foreign investment was introduced by Narendra Jadhav. Both Bills would be taken up again, likely in the next session. Retributive justice Punishments must reinforce people’s faith in the rule of law, not undermine it
Retributive justice Punishments must reinforce people’s faith in the rule of law, not undermine it
Justice in any civilized society is not just about retribution, but also about deterrence, and in less serious crimes, rehabilitation of the offenders. The heinous rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad in late November shook the collective conscience of India and resulted in an outcry for justice for the victim and outrage over the persisting lack of safety for women in public spaces. Such societal pressure for justice invariably weighs upon legal institutions, as the police are required to find the culprits with alacrity and the judiciary to complete the legal process without undue delay. But these institutions must uphold the rule of law and procedure even in such circumstances. The killing of the four accused of the rape and murder of the veterinary doctor by the Cyberabad police raises disturbing questions. The police claim that two of the accused snatched their weapons and fired at them when the four had been taken to the crime scene to reconstruct the sequence of events late after midnight, and that they killed them in self-defence. The claim stretches credulity. The National Human Rights Commission has deputed a fact-finding team to Hyderabad to probe the incident. The guidelines set by the Supreme Court to deal with such events, including the need for an independent investigation, must be strictly observed to get to the bottom of this sordid episode.
The jubilation seen on social media platforms and on the streets over the killings by the police stems from the public anger and anguish over the burgeoning crimes against women. There is a perception that the legal institutions are ill-equipped to deal with such crimes and to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet, while much more needs to be done in terms of registration and chargesheeting of sexual crimes by police and addressing the pendency in court of such cases, there has been greater awareness and improvement in both the policing and judicial process following the horrific bus gang-rape in December 2012 in New Delhi. The Telangana government had, in this case as well, issued orders for setting up a fast-track court to try the four accused and if the successful prosecution in the Delhi case had been applied as a precedent, this should have brought closure to the case in a timebound manner. Existing laws on sexual crimes and punishment need better application, but a recourse to brutal retribution as suggested unwisely by many is no solution. On the contrary, the political sanction of “encounter killings” to deliver swift retribution would only be a disincentive for the police to follow due process and may even deter them from pursuing the course of justice. Far from ensuring justice to the victims, bending the law in such cases would only undermine people’s faith in the criminal justice system.
Two decades have passed since the mid-day meal became a part of the daily routine in government schools nationwide. In this long passage of time, procedures have stabilised but accidents continue to occur. Funds from the Centre flow smoothly though procurement of food items faces hurdles of different kinds.
The latest in grotesque mid-meal stories concerns milk. Government norms entitle every child to receive 150 ml of milk as part of the mid-day meal. However, a video revealed recently how one litre of milk was mixed in a bucketful of water so that it would suffice for the more than 80 children present that day in a school in rural Uttar Pradesh (U.P.). This was somewhat similar to the one reported from U.P. a couple of months ago. In the earlier incident, a video showed plain chapatis being served with salt.
The two videos made it to the national media; they also proved useful for the officers who supervise the mid-day meal scheme since they also depend on unauthorised videographers to learn about the reality in schools. Each such revelation leads to the same reflexive official statement: punish the guilty, locate the video-maker and deal with him/her.
A week ago, I happened to pass through the area of rural Bihar where a terrible mid-day meal horror had occurred six years ago. Everybody seemed to remember it, but no one knew where matters stood now. In that incident, 23 children died after eating a meal. Inquiry revealed that the oil used for cooking the meal was stored in a can that originally carried a pesticide. It was put to use without even being washed properly. After receiving global coverage in its immediate aftermath, the episode slipped out of the media, and even the regional press moved on. A former student who keeps me in touch with developments in Bihar told me that the criminal case against the headmistress has not concluded. Policies about cooking and distribution of food have not changed either.
In the latest mid-meal story narrated above, authorities in U.P. have reportedly done the customary needful, i.e. they have fired the apparent culprit who is a para-teacher. The officiating headmaster will surely face an inquiry.
Making it part of curriculum
Ever since it was made compulsory under a Supreme Court order, the mid-day meal scheme has received considerable appreciation. It is the world’s biggest scheme of its kind, hence we are expected to take its occasionally reported hiccups in our stride.
Stories that appear in the media can be classified into three broad categories. First, there are cases of bad food, leading to food poisoning. The second kind of reports are about cheating. Then there is the third category, pertaining to caste bias and discrimination.
Food is central to the caste system, so it is not surprising that in many schools, children are made to sit separately according to their caste status. Several parents ask their children to carry their own food as the school cook belongs to a lower caste. Apparently, little effort has gone into making the mid-day meal an aspect of the curriculum. There is so much to be learnt — food prices, quantities, cooking method, and so on.
Data sorting is a part of the mathematics curriculum, and the meal provides ample data even if the quality of the food served isn’t always great. As an occasion, collective eating could also serve as a time to relax and reflect. None of this happens. If you visit a school at meal time, you can sense how everyone is feeling hassled. The mid-day meal is a chore, to be carried out under difficult circumstances and constraints. The cook is miserably paid; the food items that qualify for selection are the cheapest available; and post-meal cleaning arouses no Gandhian memories in anyone’s mind.
The bottom line is that the scheme is perceived as charity, not a civic responsibility. With the growing shift of the better-off parents to private schools, government schools are viewed as places for the poor. Therefore, the mid-day meal is associated — both in public perception and state policies — with poverty. Like other schemes that serve the poor, this scheme is also covered by norms that insist on the cheapest.
The menu, the money, the cook’s remuneration, the infrastructure — they all show the value India places upon its children. Nor is the scheme conceived as a pedagogic resource. Otherwise, it would have been implemented at private schools as well. No one can argue that health and nutrition pose no problem in private schools.
As one might expect, there are regional variations. While the northern States strictly depend on the Central grant, the southern States augment it significantly. That is why horror stories from the south are less frequent than those from the north. Nowhere in the country, however, can one see a comfortable absorption of the mid-day meal in the school’s daily life in a curricular sense. Even in educationally advanced States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, you don’t hear stories of teachers asking children to keep a weekly record of what they eat or using this record to assess the weekly intake of different nutrients. In some regions, you see the daily menu painted on the school wall. Writing letters to authorities and documenting the gap between the menu painted on the wall and what is actually served might be a great activity.
Hopes and fears
UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta Fore recently wrote an open letter to the world’s children. It marked 30 years since the promulgation of children’s rights by global consensus. The letter listed eight reasons why its writer is worried and also eight reasons why she is hopeful. Reading the two lists, you feel that there is a lot more to worry about than to feel hopeful about. The letter starts by acknowledging that poverty, inequality and discrimination still deny millions of children their rights. Food and education are among them. Then there are larger issues like the impact of conflicts, climate change, new technologies and their impact on the integrity of democratic procedures. As you go down the list of reasons causing worry, the text gets grimmer.
The concluding part of the letter is about children’s loss of trust in institutions. From fake news to divisive policy choices, the UNICEF chief’s global letter evokes a wide range of local thoughts. Children receiving a litre of milk mixed in a bucketful of water will surely understand the concept of cheating better than that of fair play.
Who is going to convince them that honesty is a good policy?
In the meantime, the clamour for moral education has graduated to a new level of sophistication. Apps and short videos are the latest in a long series of material devices that claim to inject high values and tips for good conduct in young minds. A whole new industry, with due backing from public institutions, is now handling the supply side of public demand for moral training during the formative years of life.
UNICEF must be aware that some of its sister agencies in the UN system are actively involved in the emerging neuroscience of ethics. We cannot charge fake news alone for waylaying the young.
The Indian government claims it is slowly but surely winning the war against Maoist guerillas in India’s resource-rich forested regions, and has consistently dismissed widespread accusations of human rights violations as propaganda by Maoists or their supporters. It has also acted to pre-empt future accusations by jailing human rights activists and lawyers working in these areas. But as a recent report by a government-appointed inquiry commission shows, these accusations are credible and need to be addressed.
Seven-and-a-half years after 17 unarmed villagers, including six minors, were killed by security forces at Sarkeguda village in Chhattisgarh, a commission headed by Justice V.K. Agarwal, a retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, has established that the CRPF and police version of events was false, the official police enquiry into the deaths was manipulated, and that 15 of the villagers were killed at close quarters while fleeing in a ‘totally disproportionate and unwarranted use of force.” One man was killed in his home the next morning, while one succumbed to his injuries in hospital. Injuries to the forces were caused by friendly fire, a report by the commission said. • The judge discounted testimonies by both sides, and relied only on circumstantial evidence. The CRPF/police version was dismissed because the lawyers for the villagers painstakingly picked holes in their claims.
The villagers’ testimony was deemed by the defence lawyers to be belated. In fact, the circumstantial evidence corroborates everything the villagers said. The defence charge on delay is also completely unwarranted because the villagers spoke to the press, they met the Home Minister in Delhi and wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, all within days of the incident happening. That they did not file an FIR with the police in fact works against the state, showing their complete and justified lack of faith in the system. For one, the police was involved in the firing and, two, the government’s own affidavits in the Supreme Court in the ongoing Salwa Judum case have established that the police have never acted on complaints from villagers.
The only point where the judge differs from the villagers is in arguing that the meeting that the villagers were attending was not an innocuous one to prepare for a seed-sowing festival because it was held at night and some people with ‘criminal antecedents’ were present. But in an area where anyone can be arbitrarily accused and jailed, people with criminal antecedents are a dime a dozen. As far as the security forces are concerned, everybody is a “hostile”. Even after knowing that school-going children had been killed, DIG S. Elango’s affidavit claimed: “we could find that 16 hostiles had been killed.”
However, curiously, even after exposing the violations by security forces, the judge rewarded the perpetrators. He did not recommend any prosecutions, or compensation; only better training, better gadgets and better intelligence for the forces.
The Congress, when in Opposition in the State, had raised the issue of both the 2012 Sarkeguda massacre and the Tadmetla arson, murder and rape a year earlier, as well as the accompanying attack on Swami Agnivesh and Art of Living representatives. But immediately after coming to power in 2018, it promoted IG S.R.P. Kalluri, who an internal CBI report found was as culpable as the Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were charged with arson.
Human rights violations
The Congress may have appointed high-level committees to look into releasing adivasi prisoners as well as examine the cases of journalists harassed by the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, but there has been no progress on addressing the landscape of widespread human rights violations, deaths, rapes and arson caused by Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt, despite severe indictments by the National Human Rights Commission in 2008 as well as by the Supreme Court in 2011. On the contrary, the government erected a statue to Mahendra Karma, the Congress leader who worked closely with the BJP government in carrying out the Salwa Judum.
In an internal closure report on Tadmetla that the CBI hid from the Supreme Court, but which was subsequently leaked in 2018, the CBI pointed to the larger systemic issues of deliberate obfuscation by the security forces to ensure impunity, such as not keeping records of personnel on particular operations or details of ammunition used, apart from deliberately fudging evidence. Not surprisingly, there have been several more cases of fake encounters even after the Congress took power, the most recent being of two villagers in the Munga jungle on November 5.
The Supreme Court’s 2011 ban on the use of surrendered Naxalites in frontline counterinsurgency has also been wilfully ignored by both the BJP and Congress governments, and the Court, often so mindful of its dignity, has let this contempt pass without hearing for the last seven years. A ‘final hearing’ of the Salwa Judum case began in December 2018, but one year on, there have been no dates for hearing.
As usual, the BJP is trying to deflect the real issues raised by the Sarkeguda inquiry by claiming that the leak of the report before it reached the Assembly was a breach of privilege. It is silent, however, on the issues raised by the report — the callous killing of 17 innocent villagers under its watch.
The Congress can respond to the Sarkeguda report in two ways. Either it can continue the existing policy of counterinsurgency and impunity, which is the path preferred by the deep state. Or it can choose to fulfill the mandate of the people by seizing the historical opportunity to chart an entirely new path. The Congress should celebrate its first anniversary in power in Chhattisgarh by announcing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would catalog and compensate for all deaths, and prosecute those responsibly. Action against security personnel in Sarkeguda must be the start, but must not be allowed to become the end.