Bangladesh, ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise”

In the conduct of relations with a strategic neighbour – in this case, Bangladesh – the words of poet Thomas Gray ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” will invariably prove to be disastrous. This is exactly what happened when Indian home minister Amit Shah told Anandabazar Patrika, the very largely circulated Bengali newspaper, that the poor across the border in Bangladesh did not get food since development there had not reached the grassroots. Shah went on to say that lack of development was one of the reasons why Bangladeshi infiltration was continuing and the infiltrators were not be found only in West Bengal but they were moving to other parts of the country, as far as Jammu and Kashmir. Expectedly, more than infiltration, the Indian home minister’s observation about lack of development has caused outrage in Bangladesh.

Shah’s comment came at a time when Bangladesh was celebrating 50 years of independence declared by the country’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On declaration of independence, the rump of Pakistani army stationed in the secessionist eastern part along with its paramilitary Razakar group killed up to 3 million Bengali speaking people, irrespective of their religion, and destroyed many assets. Moreover, during the liberation war, more than 10 million crossed the border into West Bengal and of whom around 1.5 million never returned to Bangladesh. As if all these cataclysmic events were not enough, nature in the form of cyclones and floods took a toll on the Bangladeshi economy. The US secretary of state Henry Kissinger who prevailed upon his president Richard Nixon to lend support to the Pakistani military government to suppress the Bengali revolt gleefully described Bangladesh as an “international basket case.” Is Shah caught in a time warp that he is not aware of what has happened with the Bangladeshi economy since?

Such an excuse will not, however, wash since he has at his command an army of bureaucrats in Delhi and at the High Commission in Dhaka to keep him apprised of the economic and political developments across the border. During the no-holds-barred election campaign in West Bengal, which BJP somehow wants to wrest from the feisty Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Shah must have found reason to say what he said to instill fear among Bengali Hindus. Did he think his observations would go unchallenged in Bangladesh or even here in some quarters? Bangladeshi foreign minister AK Abdul Momen was quick on his feet to say: “There are many wise people who will refuse to see even after looking and will not understand. But if he (Shah) has said something like that, I would say his knowledge about my country is very limited. People in my country don’t die of hunger any longer. There is no seasonal poverty in the northern districts of Bangladesh either.”

To counter the complaint relating to continuing illegal migration, Momen said “yes there are shortages of jobs for the educated. But that is not the case for less educated.” What is implied, the educated have nothing to gain by illegally crossing the border and the others have gainful employment. Momen didn’t forget to mention that over 100,000 Indians are working in Bangladesh. In any case, India has a large and growing commercial interest in Bangladesh.

In the logic of things, Shah making uncharitable remarks against Bangladesh and its people would invite angry responses from a senior minister like Momen.  He told leading Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo that what all Shah said was “unacceptable and could create misunderstandings, especially when the two South Asian neighbours have such deep relationships.” As it would happen, Shah said a few critical things about Bangladesh at a time when the world Press stood in admiration of the progress the nation, which suffered the worst ethnic cleansing operation by the Pakistani army since the Second World War, made in the past 50 years. In fact, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi who was in Dhaka to take part in independence celebrations had good words about that country and how Bangladeshis and Indians fought shoulder to shoulder during the liberation war.

Judge the progress of Bangladesh with a population of about 165 million and also perennially prone to natural calamities on the basis of social indicators of development. Bangladesh invited global attention as ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, it clocked GDP growth of 7 percent for four years in a row and that was better than China and India. As we know Modi launched as part of the Swachh Bharat program in 2014 to build enough toilets by 2019 coinciding with the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi to put a stop to public defecation, particularly in the countryside.

It no doubt was an amazing feat that as many as 110 million toilets were built across the country in five years for use by half the population. What was, however, missing was a nationwide campaign to let people know of the possibility of contracting diseases, especially diarrhea from open defecation. Then in a country like India more than asset creation, the challenge is in its maintenance. In any case, picking up on public toilets, Momen said acerbically that compared with 50 percent of Indians having access to toilets, nearly 90 percent of Bangladeshis use latrines. No doubt Momen raised this particular subject to hit the BJP administration where it hurts the most. After all, Modi led the Swachh Bharat campaign from the front.

At our neighbour’s half a century independence celebration time, we will do well to remember that from what appeared a wasteland at its birth when its per capita GDP was nearly 40 less than Pakistan, Bangladesh has come a long way. Through intelligent economic reforms and prudent use of domestic and whatever foreign resources it could mobilise today, it’s per capita income is more than 40 percent higher than Pakistan. Not only that, Bangladesh with a per capita GDP of $1,855 is not far behind India’s $2,099.6 (World Bank 2019 data). Ahead of Sheikh Hasina becoming prime minister in 2009, the country had been through political turmoil of all kinds, including military coups, extremist violence, and communal riots. Hasina may take credit for political and administrative stability. But she too is blamed for over centralisation of power with a penchant to silence voices of opposition. Even the media and social activists are not spared.

What, however, cannot be taken away from the present administration is to lift the country from the least developed to developing or lower-middle-income range country. Bangladesh has benefited considerably from the wise counsel available from ‘Harvard’ – rapid progress to the goal of universal toilet facility is one. Some non-resident Bangladeshis (NRBs) gave up their successful career abroad to create institutions like BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which has emerged as the world’s largest NGO whose basic mission is the empowerment of people through region-specific meaningful social and economic programs. BRAC has set an example as to how an NGO could put young children in primary school, give healthcare in remote places and lift households from extreme poverty. And then you have Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus who founded Grameen Bank. The profound social impact that microfinancing continues to make in Bangladesh has encouraged many other countries, including India. Unfortunately, Yunus had to pay a price for his political ambition. That’s an affront to democracy.  

CAR SAGA CONTINUES & PUTIN FLEXES HIS BICEPS

PRIVATE OR PUBLIC, CAR SAGA CONTINUES

The problem with the law and lawyers is that they haven’t quite been able to join the age of quantum physics. It is one field that is still finding it difficult to cope with the complexities of life and tends to use the biblical defense that the law is the law. It’s what Moses said. It does not seem to have the innate flexibility to deal with variations as science, medicine, even accountancy do. So it ends up being in the realm of chaos theory. Isn’t chaos theory the same as quantum theory, some might ask, but I am talking of human chaos theory. Life has to bend to the law and not law adjust to life.

So, we have the ongoing saga of whether a car is a private space or a public space. A couple of weeks ago, the Delhi court decreed that the inside of a car on a public road is not a private space, hence a driver can be stopped for not wearing a mask. “ A vehicle which is moving across the city, even if occupied at a given point in time by one person, would be a public place owing to the immediate risk of exposure to other persons under varying circumstances,” the judge said in the court.

Some police officers with this newfound or newly declared public space when it was once thought the interior of a car is a private space, decided to barge into a car and confiscate a load of drugs and of course the driver.

‘Can’t do that’ said me Lords wearing black in memory of Queen Anne. Lawyers started wearing black in the fifteenth century when Queen Anne died in England, hence even further evidence that they are mentally still in the medieval age.

No can do! said the Supreme Court because the interior of a car is not a ‘public space’ under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act). It is in fact private property. The SC acquitted three men of possessing poppy.

The only way a police officer can confiscate the drugs is by having a warrant to enter private property or under the law that permits the officer to act as if he has a warrant.

So, if the driver is not wearing a mask in his car on a public road, then the interior of his car is not private but public space as he could be infecting the bacteria in his car with his virus. But if the driver is gingerly transporting a ton of cocaine from Wagah border to Connaught place, then it is a private space and needs a warrant or officer with warrant powers to stop and search for the packets of coke that could damage hundreds of lives even if sitting there for everyone to see. The law is the law. Work that out, Rubik. Chaos theory. Perhaps lawyers were really there before scientists discovered it.

PUTIN DON’T MESS WITH MEPUTIN FLEXES HIS BICEPS

Strong man Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia has sent a clear message to all those midget Western countries who hide behind American frock and say in squeaky voices to Putin, ‘Behave yourself’.

Flexing his famous biceps, he has told them in no uncertain terms, ‘Don’t cross the “red line” because such a move would trigger an “asymmetrical, rapid and harsh” response. He has accused the west of always ‘picking’ on Russia.

He said some western countries were like jackals trying to please the US. To drive home his point he used an example the English will well relate to, ‘Just like jackals behave with Shere Khan in Kipling’s tale The Jungle Book’.

So this message is aimed at the Brits or rather the English. Putin likes to use metaphors and references that the intended party and many kids in Russia can understand through imagery.

But sending a warning like that to the English is like a red rag to a bull. The English and wars are made for each other. England always feels lost without some war to engage in. But reality also sinks in. Britain is a bit too tiny against mighty Russia, so it tries to co-op the USA in its confrontations.

Here it gets more complicated. After initially wagging the finger at Putin, Biden has then sent a conciliatory note confusing his own side.

Accusing Putin of having interfered in American Democracy, although Trump clearly denied it and even drafted an official report to back that, Biden told Putin that he will be taking ‘retaliatory action’ for interference in the 2020 presidential election and cyberattacks. It seems he has forgiven Putin for the 2016 election when Putin managed to install his man at the White House, quite a feat and possibly revenge for US interference in the Soviet Union Gorbachev period.

Biden has put sanctions on eight individuals for actions associated with Russian action in Crimea and 32 for attempts to influence the 2020 US presidential election. But Putin isn’t on the list. That’s interesting as no one would have done anything without orders from the head poncho (using Putin-style reference) himself.

But then Biden then went on to say that he proposes a summit in Europe between himself and Putin to de-escalate

It is not difficult to see why Putin isn’t taking all the British saber-rattling seriously as he amassed some 150000 troops on borders of Ukraine. But he brought them back, saying it was an exercise. Perhaps Biden’s olive branch persuaded him to throw something on the table.

Before that Putin said, ”We don’t want to burn bridges, but if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh”. In other words, he is threatening more cyberattacks, interference in elections, and possibly even a coup or two somewhere. But he did leave the interpretation of red lines with some flexibility, “We’ll decide for ourselves in each case where the red line is”.

The message from both the USA and Russia to the small flag bearers of western power, without the power, is, back off and neither are going to be trapped into another unnecessary conflict to satisfy lost imperialist dreams of European and British. Biden has done the minimum that could be done to give his lot a little bit of honourable retreat. While Putin has warned them to stay away or he could get nasty. He has already shown he can change the top man in their leader, USA.  That’s what he means by asymmetrical war.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-sanction-russia-alleged-election-interference-solarwinds-hack-n1264142

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56828813

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-sanction-russia-alleged-election-interference-solarwinds-hack-n1264142

THE COVID FAMILY OF MUTATIONS

As the Covid pandemic sweeps unrelenting across India with a national identity flagging the name ‘Indian variant’ many will be asking whether this is a virus produced in India or is it a variant that mostly affects Indians, or is it a virus that mutated after infecting Indians. In fact, it is none of these. What are variants, mutations and why do viruses get names after countries? We have the Hunan Virus, the Brazil variant, the English Variant ( or Kent variant), the South African variant, and now the Indian variant.

Covid-19 virus, like other viruses, is merely an RNA string with some protein coating. It is a gene. It only exists when it is in a living cell of another body. Viruses can be in humans, in animals, in insects, in amoebas, in bacteria, in plants, trees, in fact, any living thing. The virus needs a host to replicate and spread. That’s all they seem to do.

During replication, errors occur. These are mutations. Many mutations end up damaging the gene itself and it becomes ineffective. In some mutations, the gene becomes more effective and natural selection enables it to survive better.

All genes mutate from time to time as they replicate. Human genes in the cells also mutate. That’s how evolution happens. Viruses also mutate for many reasons. Mostly in a few million, some replications help genes to survive better.  In the case of viruses, some mutations can help them to defeat the antibodies that may have been formed against them.

There are in fact thousands of variants of the Covid-19 Sars virus.  Most of the variations are in those parts of the gene that do not do much. It is mostly variants in the so-called spike protein that are important. These spikes are used by the virus to push through into a host cell.  Antibodies generally exist to disarm the spikes thus rendering the virus unable to get into a host cell to replicate. Antibodies recognise the spikes, latch onto the virus and help killer cells in the human immune system to engulf the whole virus. These killer cells, called macrophages dismantle the virus. Or antibodies recognise the spikes and make them useless.

Some mutations in the spike protein fool the antibody, thus the antibody does not recognise it. In some mutations, the spike protein is more efficient in getting through the host cell, thus getting in before an antibody gets to it.  It is the genetic variations that significantly change the spike protein so that the antibody does not recognise or the spike protein is more lethal that really pose challenges.

Mutations can occur anywhere in the world. It’s where they are first decoded in significant numbers by scientists that the name of the country sticks. So the English variant could easily have happened in Italy or Sweden. But it was first decoded in England from Covid patients in Kent, United Kingdom.

The Brazilian variant was first decoded in numbers from patients there, as was the South African and subsequently the Indian variant.

The Indian variant also could have its origin anywhere. Indians do not need to be guilty about it. It’s just that India has decoding labs, so when the gene was broken down, it so happened the gene code was first to read in India or from patients in India.

What is a variant and what exactly do they do?

The technical names that scientists use are not country names. They are complicated and understood by virologists. Ordinary people will simply get confused.

Take the common variants.

THE SPANISH VARIANT

The first of the significant variants was the Spanish Variant. Its technical name is  20A.EU1. B.1.177. Its notable mutation is B.1.177. Remembering that in common language can be a memory feat. So it’s best to call it Spanish mutation. Although originally it was not thought to have any better transmissible power than the original Covid virus, when Europe lifted restrictions, this virus spread fast across Europe.

THE ENGLISH VARIANT

Technical name 20I/501Y.V1, VOC 202012/01, B.1.1.7 , the notable mutation is N501Y

Again a mouthful to remember. Better to call it the English or Kent variant. This has about 17 mutations. One of them N501Y in the spike protein helps the virus to bind more tightly to the cellular receptor. It is not the number of mutations in a variant that is important, but a couple of the mutations that make it more virulent. There are still studies going on on whether the English variant is significantly more able to spread than the original Covid virus.

SOUTH AFRICA

Technical name  20H/501Y, V2, B1.3. The notable mutations in it are E484K, N501Y, K417N

This variant quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa. The N501Y mutation is like the European version although scientists think it arose independently. This means that the same mutation can arise in several parts of the world without people having transmitted it there. The more dangerous mutation in this variant is E484K that enables the virus to evade the immune system.

BRAZIL

Technical B1.1.28, VOC 202101/02. 20J?501Y.V3, P1 with the notable mutation beings E484K, K417N/T, and N501Y

And another one VUI202101/01, P2. The notable mutation is E484K

Brazil seems to have had two main variants. Again some of the mutations it has are similar to ones in Spanish and UK. They are efficient in avoiding being recognised by antibodies.

INDIAN VARIANT

Tech B.1.617 notable mutations are  E484Q, L452R, P681R

The Indian variant has more than 11 mutations but two of the mutations make it particularly transmissible. That is why it is called double variant or double mutation. It is two dangerous mutations that are thought to help make it more transmissible and also capable of neutralising antibody response. This is a double attack. It is thought to overcome the immunity people may have built with a Covid infection last year. This mutation is thought to be 20% more transmissible than the original one and 50% more able to reduce antibody efficacy.

However, the Indian version is still being studied. It is concerning scientists that this variant also seems to occur in people who have been infected before.

WILL VACCINES WORK AGAINST THESE VARIANTS

The 3-4 main vaccines claim that they are effective against the variants. However, vaccines are constantly being updated. The booster shots that will be given later in the year are more likely to counter the variants.

The fact is that Sars Covid -19 Virus is here to stay. It’s done the original jump from animal to man. Although the coronavirus family of viruses does not mutate so fast and usually remains stable for a long time, the Covid-19 coronavirus is acting like a flu virus and mutating faster. So every few months a new variant is likely to be found and scientists along with vaccine manufacturers are going to be busy developing upgraded versions of the vaccines with new boosters

Sexual Assault Awareness Month- India Edition

While COVID-19 in India is rife at the moment, it is important not to neglect prominent issues around the globe that have not gone away during the pandemic and have gotten worse in some places. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, in honouring this month it is important to look at the issue of sexual assault around the globe and in particular, in India.

History of Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April 2021 marks the official 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month — but did you know we can trace its history even longer?

Even before its official declaration, SAAM was about both awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. Looking at the history of the movement to end sexual violence, it’s clear why: It’s impossible to prevent an issue no one knows about, and it’s difficult to make people aware of a problem without providing a solution. The two work in tandem, and they always have. From the civil rights movement to the founding of the first rape crisis centres to national legislation and beyond, the roots of SAAM run deep.

Understanding “rape culture” in Bangladesh, India, & Pakistan

The January 2021 rape and murder of a high school student in Bangladesh left the nation in shock yet again. However, this is not an isolated occurrence. Countless examples of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Asia from last year raise significant concerns about the so-called “progress” made in improving women’s standing and fighting rape culture in the region. Political discourse in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is deeply misguided regarding such issues, often leading to systematic victim-blaming which—knowingly or unknowingly—helps the perpetrators. In this piece, we examine the true depth and commonality of GBV in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and review previous steps taken to address this issue. We then suggest policy recommendations to curtail GBV and shift societal norms away from the normalization of rape culture and the objectification of women in South Asia. While, on the surface, one may notice an increased promotion of gender empowerment in the region, we point out that a deeper analysis of the ground realities in these countries reflects an appallingly different story.

Many visible trends in the region perpetuate an environment of sexual violence against women and other vulnerable sections of society:

1) Definition of rape: The definition is largely based on a one hundred- and fifty-year-old colonial definition. In the case of Bangladesh, the definition narrowly covers penile penetration to women without informed and willful consent. This definition leaves out cases of sexual abuse of both young boys and girls, such as in some Islamic seminaries. While India’s 2012 protests prompted changes to the age-old definition of rape to include harassment, stalking, and acid attacks, the implementation of measures against perpetrators has been weak and leaves out cases of marital rape. Though in Pakistan marital rape was criminalized in 2006, this is not the case in Bangladesh and India. Opposition to changes in law has been heard from several high quarters including comments by a former Indian Chief Justice who said that criminalizing marital rape will lead to “…anarchy in families and our country is sustaining itself because of the family platform which upholds family values.”

2) Stigma surrounding rape: The stigmatization of rape victims is a major reason for the underreporting of such cases of GBV. Victims of rape are too afraid to speak up as they believe that they will not get justice and fear facing lifelong humiliation by their families, communities, and law enforcement. Such stigma is based on intense institutional sexism and patriarchy, where the conception of honour is attached to women’s bodies. This likely inspired the Noakhali gang-rape perpetrators to audaciously release a video of the incident on social media.

3) Widespread victim-blaming along with hollow promises of justice by governments: Victim-blaming for rape cases is widespread in South Asia, percolating all the way up to prominent figures in media and pop culture. Ananta Jalil, a popular Bangladeshi actor, commented that the “dress choice of women” is responsible for inviting “unwanted sexual advances.” At the same time, the country’s information minister blamed pornography for rising rape cases. Moreover, while high-level officials occasionally make strong statements condemning rapes—such as when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for the punishment of perpetrators by castration and hanging as a deterrent, or when the Bangladeshi government adopted the death penalty for rape–critics in Bangladesh responded to the latter by arguing that such measures will not work and are merely a “cop-out” by the government to avoid addressing systematic causes of GBV and rape culture.

4) Involvement of law enforcement officials and powerful groups: Last year’s Hathras gang-rape case in India saw perpetrators with political influence enjoy absolute impunity as they utilized the very institutions established to ensure justice for victims instead be used against them. The police officers involved in the case demonstrated gross insensitivity not only by failing to support the victim and her family—such as by blatantly disregarding the complaint that was lodged—but they then proceeded to burn the victim’s body in gasoline after her death in order to avoid what they claim could have culminated in “caste riots.” This hurried cremation was likely an attempt to destroy forensic evidence that would make the case stronger against the rapists. Therefore, through the Hathras case, we can see a clear example of how law enforcement officials and political actors can and do shield and embolden perpetrators.  

5) Role of mass media:  Much of the content produced in Bollywood espouses patriarchal narratives where the plotlines regressively demonstrate women as having no agency in sexual or interpersonal relationships. They also normalize the hyper objectification of women by inserting commercially viable “item songs,” used in between a film’s plotlines that portray women as lustful objects catered to the male gaze.

What does the law in India say? 

One of the major gaps in rape laws in India is the failure to criminalize marital rape. Laws that explicitly allow marital rape under the law treat women as the property of their husbands and render them vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse within marriage. 

The law has a wide definition of rape, which includes all acts of sexual penetration and acts of oral sex (without a requirement for penetration). Indian law takes into account a broad range of coercive circumstances. Indian law presumes the absence of consent on the part of the victim in a broad range of circumstances such as rape by an individual in a position of authority, custodial rape, rape by a relative, guardian, teacher, person in a position of trust, or person in a position of control or dominance over a woman.

The law specifically provides that the previous sexual experience of the victim is not relevant in sexual violence cases. Indian law also has a specific provision prohibiting the defence from adducing evidence or asking questions in cross-examination relating to the general immoral character, or previous sexual experience, of the victim while proving consent or the quality of such consent.

What is happening?

While it might feel like we are years away from justice for women in India, steps are being made to improve women’s safety. PwC wrote an article on India’s steps to achieve equality for women and a country they are safe in. As society’s and government’s expectations of law enforcement are increasing, police departments around the world are facing greater demands to adopt new ways of operating to bolster their effectiveness. Police organisations must rapidly innovate and implement new strategies to keep citizens safe and remain a step ahead of ever-evolving criminal behavior.

Diversity in policing: Police forces are supposed to mirror the community they serve. But in many instances, the demographics of police forces don’t adequately represent the diversity of the societies in which they work. And police misconduct towards minorities remains a recurrent topic in public discussion.

Gender crime: Global estimates published by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that about one in three (35%) women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence against women has many causes. But in India, it can largely be attributed to gender-centred bias and inequality, coupled with a lack of opportunities for women to pursue education and a consequent lack of economic and social participation.

Some progress is being made, especially in areas such as female participation in the labour force. The chart illustrates that today’s rate of female labour force participation is significantly higher now than it was three decades ago in most countries globally and across all income levels. But this positive change also brings forth a pressing need to ensure the safety of women, both in the workplace and in transit to and from work. The relatively low ratio of female police officers in most police forces exacerbates this challenge. India, as noted above, has one of the lowest ratios of female police officers.

Building the future workforce: the future is female: On the scale of diversity and female representation within law enforcement, and in comparison, with the world’s most equipped police organisations, India has a long way to go. But it is working hard to catch up.

Aligning local and national capability: Change needs leadership from the top and a meaningful response to these complex challenges. For the best results, it is essential to prioritise and position resources to fight crime at the local, national and international levels.

‘Media Glare Is Fading, Not The Resolve Of Sikh Farmers’

Amrit Pal Singh (23), a BBA student who assists a US-based doctor at Tikri Border in providing medical support to protesting farmers, says they are ready to ‘weather’ any challenge

It has been nearly six months of the farmers’ protest, but we are in for the long haul. The numbers might be dwindling par jazba poora barkarar hai (the resolve is firm). You will find many of us from Punjab staying put here until a proper solution is found to the farmers’ grievances. The media interest is also dwindling but we know that those mediapersons who are still coming here are the ones who were truly invested in the issue right from the beginning. It warms my heart to see the exchange of views between protestors and mediapersons; after all interviews are about exchange of views.

I have been assisting Dr Swaiman Singh, a US-based doctor who has set up camp at Tikri Border and has been providing seva non-stop to protesters since January. Apart from registering my voice at the protest, I also serve as his assistant and accountant.

Amrit with Dr Swamiman Singh (seated first from the left)

After taking due permissions, we have turned a local bus depot into a medical camp where we provide basic medicines, first-aid facilities and have provisions for dental as well as eye check-ups. We also provide masks, sanitisers and have been trying to step up the processes here when it comes to Covid testing.

Apart from this, I do seva wherever it is required, right from providing medical support serving langars, to doing basic everyday chores like cleaning the washrooms etc. Summers are fully upon us and the trolleys that kept us safe during winters are now turning into tandoors literally, we can’t sleep in them any longer. So I contribute in the making of temporary bamboo and iron shelters to keep us safe from the heat.

Amrit with his team of medical volunteers at the protest site

While we are providing coolers wherever possible, we farmers are used to working in extreme heat and cold conditions. So extreme weather does not bother us too much. However, we need to take care of our elders and others and hence these shelters.

We had anticipated water shortage in the beginning of summers and we did suffer a bit because of shortage of water and milk, but things are back on track now and we have proper water supply. Dr Swaiman has set up big water filters at regular intervals so that the protesting public can access clean drinking water.

Amrit Pal with fellow protesters at Tikri Border

The recent Baishakhi celebrations provided us with renewed vigour and that day saw a huge rise in numbers. Many common people, artists and sportspersons came to show their solidarity and gave us a much needed shot in the arm. They might have gone back home as of now but they have told us that they are with us in spirit.

We are ready to ‘weather’ anything in order to find a solution to the problems of farmers but we sincerely hope that the government listens to us. Hamare buzurg itna kuch jhel rahe hain, wo sacchai ke liye sab kuch jhel sakte hain to hum bhi jhel sakte hain. They are our guiding light summer or winter cannot dampen our jazba.

A Model Mosque For India

In Islam, a mosque is a humble way for man to create a place where divine presence on earth could be called for. The Arabic word ‘Masjid’ means a ‘place for prostration’. It is obligatory for Muslim men to congregate five times each day, for weekly-Friday/Juma prayers and on Eid Al Fitr and Eid Ad Duha, at the local or the city mosque. It is also used as a gathering place for meetings and socialising and is strategically located at a junction to provide easy access to all. The motive to create such a space in the habitat is that one enjoys solitude within the closed structure, and connects to the world externally.

However, Muslims particularly in secular countries like India need to turn the local mosque into a hub of community activities serving every section of the society. This would also help in countering the campaign by hardliners restricting entry of people of other faiths into their religious places.

Architectural growth of mosques

Architecturally, a mosque has four main elements namely the congregation hall, a mihrab marking the qiblah (the direction for prayers and the site for the Imam), a minaret (tall tower for the call of azaan) and a hauz (water tank for ablution), and is directed towards the qiblah, the direction in which the Holy Kabaah is, and which Muslims face for their prayers.

Arab-styled hypostyle mosques were the earliest type of mosques, pioneered under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. These mosques have square or rectangular plans with an enclosed courtyard (sahn) and a covered prayer hall. Historically, in the warm Middle Eastern and Mediterranean climates, the courtyard served to accommodate the large number of worshippers during Friday prayers. However, the simplicity of the Arab plan limited the opportunities for further architectural innovations.

Persians (Iranians) were the first to depart from the Arabic style. They incorporated design elements from earlier Parthian and Sassanid styles into their mosques. Thus, Islamic architecture witnessed the introduction of such structures as domes and large, arched entrances, referred to as iwans.

ALSO READ: Indian Madrassas Need Reorientation

During Seljuq rule, as Islamic mysticism was on the rise, the four-iwan arrangement took form. This style firmly established the courtyard façade of mosques, with the towering gateways at each side. The Persians also introduced Persian gardens into mosque designs. Soon, a distinctly Persian style of mosques started appearing that would significantly influence the designs of later Timurid, and also Mughal-era, mosque designs.

The Ottomans introduced central dome mosques in the 15th century. These mosques have a large dome centred over the prayer hall. In addition to having a large central dome, a common feature is smaller domes that exist off-centre over the prayer hall or throughout the rest of the mosque, where prayer is not performed. This style was heavily influenced by Byzantine architecture with its use of large central domes. The Khirki Mosque in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi incorporates this design and has more than 81 domes.

Mosques built in Southeast Asia often represent the Indonesian-Javanese style architecture, which are different from the ones found throughout the Greater Middle East. The ones found in Europe and North America appear to have various styles but most are built on Western architectural designs, some are former churches or other buildings that were used by non-Muslims. In Africa, most mosques are old but the new ones are built in imitation of those of the Middle East.

Historically, a number of mosques were constructed in India during the Mughal period. However, after partition most of the mosques were built on simple design elements, but with the flow of money sent by economic immigrants and also collected by clerics, the building of mosque in India, soon turned into an expansive one, as every mosque planner wanted to outdo the other.

An Innovative Mosque

Architect Qutub Mandviwala from Gujarat has established a new trend in mosque design when he planned the Gulistan Mosque at Gulistan Housing Society in Jajmau, Kanpur, UP in 2018.

Gulistan Mosque in Kanpur – Picture courtesy Huzaifa Ahmad

The mosque built on a small plot area of 250 sq. mts is located in a densely populated area. It is situated in a planned community project, which caters to a large number of people, of varied faiths. The simple and the innovative design of the mosque catches the eye of every visitor. It is connected to two main roads and has two entries, one from the main external road, whereas other from the internal community road.

The mosque has been designed with simplicity and precision, using basic plans and little ornamentation. The planning of the mosque is derived keeping in mind the ideologies of the faith and its symbolism in the real world.

A small open patch surrounding the main building is used as a sehen and the two entry points to the mosque leads to a passage way that has the wuzu area for ablution and space for stacking footwear.

The main building of the mosque is tilted at an angle, to reflect the prostrating figure while in prayers. The exterior is simple with large courtyard space, beautified with landscaping. A small water body surrounds the minar at the outside.

The elevation or the facade is covered with carved jaalis (latticed or perforated screens), giving it a Mughal touch, and for filtration of harsh natural light. The magnificence of the light entering in is symbolic of the enchantments the celestial world holds for the humans. The jaali façade weaves a subtle play of shadow and light and provides a dynamic nature to the subtle peaceful quality of the space within as it gives out enough lighting through different seasons. The external heat is also cut out as air is subjected to the venturi effect.

A Model Mosque

However, at present besides constructing modern and aesthetically pleasing mosques, we should also focus on building mosques, which are functional and serve other community purposes also.

We can take this argument a step forward by envisioning the modern mosque to be a Community Resources Centre (CRC) for the local Muslim community, where the mosque is located. This mosques/CRC should serve as the meeting point of the local Muslim congregation for their religious needs besides social needs also.

The mosque should have a space for a library, a Career Guidance or Counselling Centre, where counsellors could provide expert guidance to the community’s youth with regard to their educational and career options and choices, it should also serve as a community interaction centre, which could keep an eye on the poor and ailing sections of the congregation and provide them relief facilities. It should also have a room to give bath and prepare the bodies of the dead for burial.

We should try to make the local mosques, which are architecturally and aesthetically pleasing, not costing much and try to turn them into a multi-functional venue, for the local community, fulfilling both religious and practical purposes and need of the local Muslims. An initiative, which was started in some European countries some time ago, has been started recently in India also. Under the initiative local non-Muslims are invited to the local mosque to observe how the prayers are conducted there besides exposing them to the teachings of the Holy Quran and basic Islamic fundamentals. Initiatives like these will go a long way in building-up an atmosphere of trust amongst different communities and increase inter-faith interactions, which are the need of the hour in the country.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

India Fastest To Administer 12 Cr Covid Vaccines

India took only 92 days to administer 12 crore COVID-19 vaccinations, the fastest country to do so across the world, reported the Press Information Bureau (PIB).

The United States is at the second position as it managed to reach the 12 crore mark in 97 days, followed by China, which took 108 days to reach the same target.
As per a provisional report put together till 7am on Sunday, India has administered 12,26,22,590 vaccine doses.

These include 91,28,146 healthcare workers (HCWs) who have taken the 1st dose and 57,08,223 HCWs who have taken the 2nd dose, 1,12,33,415 frontline workers (FLWs) (1stdose), 55,10,238 FLWs (2nddose), 4,55,94,522 1st dose beneficiaries and 38,91,294 2nd dose beneficiaries more than 60 years old and 4,04,74,993 (1st dose) and 10,81,759 (2nd dose) beneficiaries aged 45 to 60 years.

In India, states including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have alone managed to give more than 1 crore doses each to their population. Gujarat completed 1 crore vaccinations on the April 16, while the other three states achieved it on April 14.

In a press statement, PIB revealed that “eight states account for 59.5% of the total doses given so far in the country.”

It also states that in the last 24 hours, 26 lakh people were vaccinated.

Meanwhile, India’s daily new COVID-19 cases continue to increase. The country registered 2,61,500 new cases in the last 24 hours.

Maharashtra has reported the highest daily new cases at 67,123. It is followed by Uttar Pradesh with 27,334 while Delhi reported 24,375 new cases.

Ten states including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan report 78.56% of the new cases, read the press statement by PIB. (ANI)

Covid-19 Positivity Rate Rises To 30% In Delhi

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Sunday said the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests in the national capital has increased to 30 per cent from 24 per cent in the last 24 hours. He also requested the Central government to reserve at least 7,000 hospital beds for COVID patients in the city.

Addressing a press conference, the Chief Minister said, “Around 25,000 COVID-19 cases were reported in Delhi in the last 24 hours. The major concern is the positivity rate that has increased to 30 per cent from 24 per cent in the last 24 hours. The cases are rising very fast. The beds are getting exhausted very quickly. There has been a shortage of ICU beds. There are less than 100 ICU beds are left in Delhi.”
Kejriwal emphasised the shortage of oxygen in the national capital.

“We are getting cooperation from the Central government. I had a discussion with Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan yesterday evening. I had a conversation with Union Home Minister Amit Shah ji over the phone today morning. I informed about the shortage of beds and oxygen in hospitals,” he said

“There are a total of 10,000 beds in Delhi including that of the Central government. Out of them, 1,800 beds have been reserved for COVID patients. I request the Central government to reserve at least 7,000 beds for COVID patients. I request for immediate supply of oxygen,” explained Kejriwal.

He further said, “The Delhi Government will make 6,000 oxygen beds ready in 2-3 days. We are also making arrangements for high-flow oxygen beds in many hospitals. Oxygen beds will also be arranged in Yamuna Sports complex, Common Wealth Games Village Sports Complex, Radha Soami Satsang Beas and many schools that are being attached with hospitals.”

The chief minister thanked the people of Delhi for abiding by rules during the ongoing weekend curfew.

“I would like to thank the people of Delhi for their cooperation in the curfew. I thank the Central Government. I also thank doctors and NGOs for their support. We believe we will very soon overcome the fourth wave of COVID-19,” stated Kejriwal. (ANI)

COVID-19 Peak in India, Exam Worry for Students and the Cost of COVID

A resurgent wave of Covid hits India hard

The biggest news last week in India was the relentless rise in the number of Covid cases. The daily rate of infections in India has been soaring since March and, on April 14, it touched nearly 200,000 cases in a day. The total number of people infected since the virus was first detected in India now stands at over 14 million, which is second to only the United States where the total number of cases recorded stands at 32 million-plus. With the latest surge in the virus, India has beaten Brazil, which has recorded more than 13.5 million cases. 

Comparing absolute numbers such as those really means little because compared to India’s population of nearly 1.4 billion, the number of people living in Brazil (211 million) and the US (330 million) is piffling. So, in percentage terms, the spread of the virus in India is not as widespread as it is in those two countries. But, tackling a situation where the number of cases is as high as India’s along with a spurt in daily infection rates is an enormously challenging task.

Yet, surprisingly, it would seem that in some instances the seriousness required to rise up to that challenge is missing. Around the same time that the resurgence of Covid hit India, the Indian authorities allowed pilgrims to gather for Kumbh Mela, the religious ceremony of dipping in the Ganges at Haridwar in northern India. Last week, millions of devotees, most of them maskless, descended at the site where it is believed that a dip in the Ganges is auspicious on particular dates. On one such day, last Monday, the number of pilgrims was to the tune of five million. 

In the first 48 hours since the Mela began, tests that were conducted there revealed that at least 1300 people tested positive. Many believe that is just a drop in the Ganges because neither are the tests conducted in large numbers nor is anyone going for such pilgrimages able to maintain stipulations such as social distancing or other precautions.

The Kumbh Mela is a particularly auspicious Hindu ritual. The event is quite easily the world’s largest pilgrimage that is held at periodic intervals. During the ritual, pilgrims “wash their sins” in the Ganges whose waters, they believe, turn into “nectar of immortality” on those auspicious dates. Even in the best of times, the logistics of managing millions of people crowded into a small area is a challenge that can be daunting. At a time when the Covid virus is spreading like wildfire in India, it can be a nightmare.

It is inconceivable that millions of people, mostly traveling without Covid-era restrictions, will be tested with meticulous thoroughness. It is conceivable, however, that an event like that, which began on 8 April and will end on 8 May (the actual dipping in the Ganges spans a shorter period within those dates) and which is attended by millions, can become a launching pad for super-spreading of the pernicious virus that is currently causing a pandemic.

Postponed exams cause worry for students

Even as maskless pilgrims in millions descended, restriction-free, for a sacred Hindu ritual, the government decided to cancel the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) exams, which two million students across India were supposed to take during April and May. Instead of the exams, conducted at the end of Class 10, students will be automatically promoted to the next class. In addition, the school-leaving examinations, held at the end of Class 12, have been postponed till at least June. This will affect at least 1.8 million students. 

The moves to cancel or postpone those public examinations have created adverse reactions among students who fear that this could delay their academic programs and university entrance processes. Of particular ire is the fact that the government has not thought of restrictions when it comes to mammoth pilgrimages such as the Kumbh Mela or the massive rallies that have been held or are still being planned as political parties hectically campaign for elections in several states, including the crucial polls in West Bengal. 

The real costs of Covid could come later

As everywhere else in the world, the economic costs of the Covid virus in India could be felt for a long time, even after the virus’s spread slows down and restrictions are lifted. The virus has hit India’s most prosperous and industrialised state, Maharashtra, the hardest. And this has already begun having repercussions on the economy. 

Lockdowns and the rapid spread of the virus in the state (last Wednesday, the state recorded nearly 60,000 cases) are expected to hit the consumer industries such as automobiles, durables, and appliances. The state accounts for a sizable share of the production of these categories and disruptions can cause shortages across India.

In addition, the Indian rupee has hit a nine-month low, inflation could rise, and employment growth could slow down. Analysts expected India’s GDP growth rate to bounce back in February when the virus showed signs of slowing down. Now, with the second wave of the virus’ spread gathering momentum, those expectations are being diluted down. India’s economic outlook for the coming year looks more uncertain than ever.

Baishakhi 1699 — The Understated Revolution

This week, Sikhs around the world celebrated Baisakhi on 13th April and some on 14th. Perhaps as a legacy of colonialism, the world and most Indians know about the 1788 French revolution and attribute human rights, republican government, and equality to it. Yet nearly a century before that another profound and wider revolution on human rights, fight against tyranny, the end of hereditary leadership, the emergence of republican order, and a truly democratic polity based on ancient Indian ideas took place on Baisakh 1699 on South Asian soil without the reign of terror that accompanied French Revolution. Few Indians know it and only a rare Indian academic recognises its significance.

On Baisakh 1699, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Rai called a large gathering at Anandpur Sahib. His father, the Ninth Sikh Guru, Teg Bahadur Ji had been beheaded in 1675 on orders of the Mogul Emperor, Aurang Zeb, for refusing to convert to Islam. Guru Teg Bahadur wanted to show others by example that freedom of conscience comes at a price. Unfortunately, the message was lost on most Indians.

Guru Teg Bahadur went to the Mogul Emperor to argue for pluralism after Kashmiri Pundits pleaded with him to help them as persecution of ‘nonbelievers’ had taken on the new drive.

On Baisakh 1699, in a gathering of some 80000 followers, Guru Gobind instituted the order of the Khalsa, an ethical community of saint soldiers who served humanity rather than a ruler or an elite or a single religion.

A ceremony took place. Amrit was prepared, called Khande Ka Pahul. The first five came from different regions of South Asia and from different Varna Jaatis (castes) representing the diversity and regions of South Asia. They drank from a common bowl breaking the taboos of Varna Jaati (caste).   

These were Daya Ram, a Khatri from Lahore district, (now Pakistan).  Dharam Das was a Jaat from Hastinapur, Meerut (now UP, India). Himmat Rai was a water carrier from Puri, a town in modern-day Odisha (India). Mohkam Chand was the son of a cloth printer, a Kamboj from Dwarka, (in modern day Gurjrat). Sahib Chand was a barber or Nai who is generally considered to have been from Bidar (in modern-day Karnataka)

They were called Punj Pyare (five venerated). Guru Gobind gave them the surname Singh.  After taking Amrit, they became Daya Singh, Dharam Singh, Mohkam Singh, Himmat Singh, and Saheb Singh. He then asked them to give him Amrit and became Guru Gobind Singh.

Thousands took Amrit. The men took the surname Singh while women became Kaur. They were asked to live a disciplined life and wear five Kakkars of which two well-knowns are keeping unshorn hair and a Kirpan (small sword). They were to treat all humanity with respect, fight for justice against tyranny, practice no discrimination, share their wealth, and govern by consensus. Any five Amritdhari Sikhs would constitute the five venerated and they would make final decisions after consultation with the masses. There would be no absolute leader and no hierarchy of power and no hereditary privileges.

Baisakhi and taking Amrit is generally characterised as a religious ceremony. Looked from a different perspective, Guru Gobind Singh overhauled the very structures of political power and society, making them horizontal rather than vertical.

Secondly, by taking Amrit from the five, the Guru broke another tradition, the idea of infallible power in a single holy or privileged person. He submitted to the five and during his life, they often persuaded him to change decisions.

He further uprooted the entrenched discrimination of women as lower than men. He armed them along with men and did not give them a different set of Kakkars, or different services or duties.  Many did lead Sikh armies and became leaders.

Further by handing the power of ultimate decision in the consensus of the masses, the idea of a few privileged men deciding laws, economics, and rules for everyone else was overturned as an institution of political power.

Indian society was transformed on that day. There was no scope for Kings, male dominance, religious hierarchy, caste, or privilege. The roots of what is called the republic in modern times were born. Democracy was instituted on the principle of almost total consensus called sarb samti.

Under him, the Sikhs ended up going to war several times against the forces of Aurangzeb. But it wasn’t simply the Sikhs. The revolution had spread and many people associating with the Khalsa were also Hindus and Muslims. They were not seen as religious wars but a war against tyranny and a fight for freedom, dignity, and a new idea of consensus politics. Guru Gobind Singh passed away in October 1708.

In that year an ascetic, Lachman Das joined the Khalsa, becoming Banda Singh Bahadur. Banda carried the revolution forward. His lasting legacy in the short time he led the Khalsa, was to decimate the foundations of Mughal rule in northwest India and strip feudal lords of the land, end serfdom and grant land rights to the tillers of the land.  This memory runs deep in the regions of Punjab and Haryana. Hence the determination of farmers to resist possible corporate take over which they see as a modern form of feudalism.

After Banda Bahadur followed disparate Sikh groups called Misls who finally routed the Mughals and started ruling different regions. Eventually, Ranjit Singh became the so-called Maharajah in 1801. Yet he called his Empire Sarkar-E-Khalsa, Government of the Khalsa, and signed treaties under that. Ranjit Singh had a golden throne that he avoided sitting on. Instead, he sat cross-legged on the floor, knowing the Khalsa does not like hierarchy.

Ranjit Singh’s rule is also renown for inclusiveness, with Muslim and European Generals and Hindu Ministers. He gave grants to all communities to build their religious and community centres. This was a state that practiced no discrimination based on religion, caste, background, or nationality.

In 1843, after Ranjit Singh had died, his wife, Rani Jinda, led the negotiations for the treaty that followed the last Anglo-Sikh war. The Harding brothers sat in disbelief having to negotiate with a woman.

Rani Jinda and Banda Bahadur

Once Colonialism sank deeper, the revolution started in 1699 was given a ‘religious’ characterisation by European colonialists as a baptism service, despite the fact that no new spiritual and other metaphysical revelations or commitments were made on Baisakh 1699. British colonialists did not want to encourage an Indian version of the French revolution to spread through the region as a republican form of governance that would challenge British Crown rule. They preferred to rule directly as Crown land or through compliant Maharajahs.

The portrayal of Baisakhi as a religious event has also been internalised by Sikhs and unfortunately appropriated as such by the rest of the Indians, particularly academics trained in the western instituted education system. The event was a seismic transformation in the way polity started moving in South Asia. It fought the tyranny of both Mughals and Hindu Rajas until colonialism put a stop to that. The Sikhs had unfortunately not put together an institutional structure that reflected the principles established in 1699 and one that could have lived unscathed through western hegemony. Now the event is too marginalised as a religious one to be unpacked for its real significance in the history of political ideas and influences.

It is possible that it might take a western academic to flip the narrative and interpret Baisakh 1699 as the movement for inclusivity, of inversion of power from a divine Raja to the sovereignty of the masses, the end of discrimination and hierarchy based on gender, caste, religion, etc and welfare of all.