Farmers Protest: Solution Lies With Canada Sikh MPs

It is intriguing that Canada, a country with a large and powerful Sikh population, has largely been silent on the Farmers dispute in India. Beyond an early statement by Justine Trudeau that farmers should have the right to protest, there has been almost no comment by him or the many Sikh MPs in his party.

They have excused themselves by saying that it is ‘an internal matter of India’. Internal issues of other countries have not stopped the messianic Prime Minister of Canada from making statements on many other countries. Canada has also legal-napped one of the most powerful CEOs of the 5G Chinese company Huawai, risking the lives of some Canadians who are now detained in China. So why has the ‘internal matter’ of India been such a hurdle.

It appears that Canada has been relentlessly raising the issues of subsidies for agriculture produce in India at the World Trade Organisation, even in 2020 when the farmers protest were well advanced. Canada, Australia and USA wanted the Minimum Support Price to stop or reduced dramatically.

The World Trade Organisation is an extremely important body that regulates rules of trade between countries. Countries have agreed to abide by the rules and further to accept the judgements by its Dispute Settlement Body.

The WTO has rules on subsidies on farm produce just as it has on agriculture trade between countries. The rules are that Governments should not distort the market. WTO does not like Governments subsidising agriculture produce. Subsidy for agriculture produce is called MPS in WTO terminology, meaning Market Price Support.  It tolerates some possible minimum distortion to the market. It is called ‘de minimis’. Developed countries are permitted up to 5% subsidy over the cost of production. It goes a bit further for developing countries to whom it permits 10% subsidy over the production costs. Beyond 10% is considered as ‘market sin’ in the eyes of WTO.

What WTO does not do of course is insist on the maximum profit margin that traders (corporations) can make in the market. The system favours corporate and capitalist system.

India on the other hand has Minimum Support Prices (MSP) that gives up to 50% more than production of costs. This is not acceptable to WTO and many of its members, especially the very rich countries such as Canada, Australia and USA.

Canada has been raising issues around subsidies since 2002 if not earlier. It is still complaining at WTO meetings on Agriculture that India’s subsidies regime is far beyond permissible levels. It did this on 28th July 2020, when it said, ‘In its 2018/2019 domestic support notification, India reported support for rice in excess of its de minimis level for rice. By doing so, India breached WTO domestic support commitment to limit its support for rice at 10% of its value of production. Please indicate what concrete steps India is taking to rectify the situation and fulfil its WTO domestic support commitment for rice in the future.’

In 2019, both Canada and USA raised objections to MSP, mentioned as MPS (Market Price support). They said in the conclusion that ‘It appears that India provides market price support for pulses in excess of what it has reported to WTO.’

India’s defence has been that it is not giving more than the 10% subsidy. It calculates the subsidy rather creatively when responding to WTO. That does not impress the countries who raise the question.

In 2018, the United States even accused India of sort of cooking the books. It said that while in its annual notifications, India reports that it is not subsidising more than the permissible percentage, it (the USA) has seen plenty of evidence in the open source internet that India is subsidising by far more.  By a counter-notification it said ‘that India substantially under-reported its market price support (MPS) – government purchases of farm goods at guaranteed prices – for wheat and rice in its 2010-11 and 2013-14 notifications to the WTO’. The United States produced a table accusing India of pushing MPS upto 84%.

Table introduced by USA in its counter-notification

Apparent MPS as a percentage of the value of production for rice and wheat Commodity

CommodityMY2010/11MY 2011/12MY 2012/13MY2013/14
Rice74.0%80.1%84.2%76.9%
Wheat60.1%60.9%68.5%65.3%

India defended itself by refuting these. While till then the objections have been in form of verbal and written statements, Australia moved an official notification in 2019 for dispute settlement by targeting Sugarcane, because India had admitted to slight increased MPS. The dispute is listed as DS 580. The dispute was supported by Brazil. On 22nd July 2019, Australia asked for a dispute Panel to be set up. This then becomes an official process of looking into what WTO calls market distortion. Australia would have done this with consent of Canada and USA as usually happens in these international arenas. Canada may have deliberately kept its name out of the official complaint as that would have exposed its hypocrisy. Canada is among some of the countries who have put their names to be in the panel to examine the dispute!

Indian subsidies have been under intense pressure. The WTO news briefing of 26 June 2019 states that India received most questions on Agriculture subsidies at the WTO. The list of questions are also on WTO site.

It would appear that India has been under a lot of pressure at the World Trade Organisation to put an end to the MSP that Punjab and Haryana farmers are protesting to have put in law. The pressure increased in 2019. The complaints have been led by Canada, Australia and USA mostly with Canada having started as long ago as 2002 and still raising issues in 2020. The evidence is all over at WTO website.

What is further intriguing is why PM Modi has been silent on this. Why didn’t he square with the farmers that their country, India, is under a great deal of pressure to reform farm produce subsidies instead of his government accusing them of being anti national. He or at least MPs from his party could have turned to all those Sikh farmers trekking on tractors to Delhi, that they would be best advised to call their relatives resident in Canada to ask their ‘Apne MPs and ministers’ why Canada is pushing India to stop giving MSP to farmers in Punjab!

Breaching WTO rules in one field and refusing to abide by adjudications can have implications in other sectors of trade. Despite sovereignty and all that power countries claim to have, international institutions can still influence domestic policies to a great extent.

The Government is in a fix. If it agrees to WTO ‘de minimis’ rule then MSP will have to come down to 10% above costs and not the 50% as it seems to be now. Farmers will lose a lot of money and many pushed into poverty. The alternative is to sell in the open market and have an income support system as is permissible under WTO. This has been proposed by the Modi Government.

Modi Govt is in a fix over WTO ‘de minimis’ rule

By taking away the current MSP, Mandis will not be able to sustain themselves. Mandis and Artiyas take some 7% of the price which a farmer sells at. This 7% of 150% production cost and 7% of 110% production cost lead to vast differences in revenue for the state governments. So the Indian Government proposed the private sector to come and compete. They can buy at 300% above or 50% below production costs as they want.

Why has PM Modi not put the cards on the table to the farmers is a mystery. Why weren’t they invited to a dialogue where facts and pressures explained and the two sides to have worked a mutually agreed solution. Perhaps Modiji is too proud to appear weak in front of the international community and his own citizens. Having promoted a rhetoric of India as superpower etc and himself as an invincible leader, it would have appeared a bit weak to say the WTO now decides what sovereign Bharat can do with MSP?

Perhaps the details of the talks between farmer leaders and Modi Government are not known fully. But it seems a bit of transparency, rather than unconvincing salesmanship on how the new laws will make farmers into ‘millionaires’ might have led to a different dynamics of the year and half of protests and led to a better solution.

It seems the farmer protests are directed at the wrong target. It doesn’t appear that the Government of India has much scope to manoeuvre. It can either appease the farmers and breach international trade agreements with knock on effects on an already weak economy, or it can implement WTO rules as demanded by Canada, Australia and USA.

Farmers will be better making angry calls to their relatives in Canada, to all those self bloated Sikhs who think they own the Government in Canada, and ask them why are Sikh ministers and MPs pushing for removal of MSP in Punjab and Haryana.

Farmers would be better protesting outside Canadian High Commission than on roads

It is in the end the inaction if not co-option of the Sikh MPs of Canada that is driving their relatives in Punjab into poverty. It is these MPs who bear most responsibility and perhaps the banner of hypocrisy as they gingerly join protests in Canada against Farm Laws, but support their Government to push for end to MSP at WTO.

It is one thing to rhetorically claim to own levers of power, but it is another to be able to exercise power. Why don’t Sikhs in Canada ask Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister to walk into Trudeau’s office and demand Canada lay off the WTO pressure?

The protesting farmers also need to call their relatives in USA and Australia to lobby their governments to back off. If Sikhs in USA have any influence, then this is the time to show. Otherwise like many other times American Sikhs engage in more gas and tamasha than substance.

But most appropriately, it would be better if farm leaders also explain to the many farmers who is really behind all their problems. They would be better advised to protest infront of Canadian and  Australian High Commissions and US embassies rather than Singhu border or Indian Parliament. But then they also want visas to go and settle in these countries. Modi is an easier target.

Autumn’s Shadow on The Arab Spring

While most the Indian media has been obsessed with developments taking place in Afghanistan, it has nearly missed the country, which was the fountainhead of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ about ten years back when people toppled a dictator that had ruled it for 27 years. Arab Spring had nurtured hopes that democracy might be able to get a toehold in many Arab countries based on the aspirations of the people.

However, recent events in Tunisia have raised concerns whether the small country which shook the power centres in this vast and strategic region, will it be able to handle its own aspirations as expressed by people ten years back. On 25 July, Tunisian President Kais Saied stunned the world by announcing the suspension of the parliament, the sacking of the cabinet and assuming emergency powers citing an imminent threat to the Tunisian state. These extraordinary measures are supposed to last for 30 days.

For Tunisia watchers the development came as no surprise, as Tunisians have changed ten governments in the last ten years and are moving along the path, which may lead the country towards anarchy.

The events of the last ten years have infused most Tunisians with a sense of hopelessness and a loss of faith in parliament and the country’s political parties.

This explains why Mr Saied’s draconian measures were met with jubilation on the streets. His supporters were simply fed up with parliament, and yearned for change.

But not everyone in Tunisia was happy. BBC reports that foremost among them was Ennahda [Renaissance] Party, the Islamist party that has the biggest block in parliament. It denounced Mr Saied’s move as a coup. Other parties as well as independent observers concur.

So, now the world will be watching the next move of the four organisations – known as the Quartet for National Dialogue – which in 2013 succeeded in brokering a compromise between Islamists and their secular rivals and averted protracted civil strife.

Some observers believe the fault lies with the constitution that created multiple centres of power: the president, the prime minister and the parliament. In an ideal world that should create a well-balanced political order, with checks and balances that prevent domination by the president. But in an extremely polarised society it was a recipe for paralysis.

For the ruling party, problems accumulated – especially with Covid spiralling out of control – the governance broke down, and the president occasionally blocked parliament and vice versa, each side tweaking the text of the law to suit its own purpose. However, what happens in Tunisia will not stay in Tunisia, as the experience of the past decade has demonstrated.

Most autocrats of the region are harping once again that “Arabs are not fit for democracy” and the democratic forces are clinging to the hope that Tunisia will remain a beacon for the rest of the region.

In fact, Tunisia is the third Arab country after Egypt and Sudan to say that it is fed up with the rule of the Islamists. With the exception of Qatar, most of the Arab countries have long regarded the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups as a major threat to security, stability and peace.

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Many pro-west Arab commentators have drawn parallels with what happened in Egypt in 2013, when Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, then minister of defence and now president, intervened to remove the elected Muslim Brotherhood president. Most Arab commentators have accused the Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, of spreading chaos and instability in the Arab world.

Khaled Abu Toameh, a journalist based in Jerusalem, writing for Gatestone Institute on the issue says that evidently, many Arabs are pleased that the rule of the Islamists in Tunisia has finally come to an end. The jubilation in the Arab countries over the toppling of the Ennahda Party sends a clear message to the rest of the world against embracing or appeasing the Islamists. Toameh gives examples of various other writers in his report, like;

Abdel Aziz Khamis, a Saudi journalist told Sky News Arabia that the reason the Tunisian Islamists failed was because they “failed to believe in democracy in its true meaning, including freedom of the media, the independence of the judiciary and economic and social rights.”

Prominent Saudi journalist and writer Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed stated that he was not surprised by the downfall of the Islamists in Tunisia. As the ruling party was associated with chaos and assassinations once they were in government. Al-Rashed wrote for Al Arabia newspaper, “…the extraordinary measures the president took came to rescue the country before the collapse. In fact, what he is doing is saving the Tunisian regime, and Tunisia, the country, from the chaos that had begun.”

Sawsan Al-Sha’er, one of Bahrain’s most influential journalists and intellectuals, expressed relief over the ouster of the Islamists of Tunisia and said that this should serve as a reminder to all Arabs that Islamist parties – Shiite and Sunni alike – care about nothing else but grabbing power.

Saudi writer and journalist Abdel Aziz Khamis expressed hope that what happened in Tunisia would spread to other Arab countries. Urging Arabs to learn from the failed experience of the Islamists in Tunisia, Khamis listed a number of reasons why the Ennahda party failed: “It failed because it was not able to find real solutions to Tunisia’s problems and because it was not concerned with serving the people or improving their living conditions.”

Khamis said that the Ennahda Party also failed because it was unable to transform itself into a political party “in the modern sense of the word.” The party, he added, “was not able to leave the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

However, if we analyse the reasons behind the failure of Islamist parties in the region, then one fact would emerge that first these parties are not given time to settle-in and start delivering, but are embroiled in various internal and external issues. The puppet master behind most of these interventions are the western countries and in fact these nations are least concerned whether there is a despotic or a democratic government till the time their gains are assured. And that might be one of the reasons why the Arab Spring has failed to deliver what it promised, i.e. power to the people.

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

1947 And 2021 – Two Exits In Perspective

While Biden is being attacked all around for failing to organise the exit from Afghanistan more strategically to avoid sudden fall of the government and the dangerous fate that is potentially faced by the Afghans who worked for the Western administration, it is worth looking at the worst exit in recent history if not all of world history. The British withdrawal from India was so shambolic, insensitive and reeking of criminal negligence, that it left one million people dead in its trail.

As the British media and Parliamentarians finger-point at the United States, they conveniently forget the circumstances around 1947. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten was in charge. There was enough intelligence that weapons had been stored by various groups preparing for violence to ethnically cleanse on each side of the newly created India-Pakistan border. Party strategists on both sides wanted to make sure that their country had dominance of the community that it was meant for.

On Pakistan side, the Punjabi Muslims wanted Sikhs and Hindus out to avoid the country becoming a multiethnic-multireligious land. After all the idea of Pakistan was to create an independent country for South Asian Muslims, the Islamic nation. On the other hand, quite a few Hindus wanted to rid India off as many Muslim population as could so that India would be a Hindu dominant country. Most of the violence was in the Punjab. The Sikhs were caught in between but sided with Hindu India and bore the brunt of violence in Pakistan side of Punjab. On the Indian side of Punjab, Muslims suffered immense violence.

It wasn’t the first time communal violence had taken place in India. But the British not only didn’t plan for it, the British Indian Army stayed in its barracks while massacres were going on around them in hundreds of thousands. Timely planning for massacres and strategic intervention and control by the army could have prevented most of the violence, admittedly not all. A highly disciplined army that respected its British officers would largely have ensured that violence was contained rather than become a pandemic.

Mountbatten managed to save almost every British life and the British walked out of India without loss of life.

Interestingly, the blame for the violence has been put on Indians, religion, lack of civilisation, inexperience of leaders such as Nehru and Jinnah etc. No blame has been appropriated on the negligence of the British administration. So successful has been this narrative that even Indian and Pakistani academics continue to concentrate their writings on the senseless violence and have internalised the blame upon their own communities. They blame the British for communalising politics but not for mindless inaction at the time.

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The British Press and politicians seem to have developed a convenient amnesia about British handling of the Indian exit as they queue to gloat at Biden and his sudden decision to leave Afghanistan without apparent preparations for a sudden collapse of the Afghan Government.

Compared to what happened in 1947, the USA has handled the Afghan exit with extraordinary dexterity. It immediately sent in about 5,000 troops and has now vacated over 100,000 Afghans and American citizens. It has enabled other countries to vacate their people too.

The Americans have handed control to the Taliban but also remain in talks with them to avoid the situation getting worse. Compare this to 1947. A million people died in the massacres.

It is inevitable anywhere in the world, be it India, Britain or USA, that if the agencies responsible for ensuring order are withdrawn, then chaos and violence ensues. Chinese whispers exaggerate the smallest incident and then develop a life and trajectory of their own. That is what happened in 1947. The organisation that was supposed to ensure order, the British Indian Army, failed in its duty and stayed in its barracks under direct orders to do so.

In Afghanistan 2021, the Taliban quickly stepped in to ensure law and order. It took over when the Afghan National Army absconded and left the streets potentially to mob rule, criminals and waiting Islamic State jihadis among others. The Taliban immediately filled the vacuum as the western backed President, Ashraf Ghani, ran away. The Taliban have also cooperated in letting Americans and other western countries to take their citizens and those who worked for them in flights from the main Airport in Kabul, called Hamid Karzai Airport.

A lot of arm chair generals have a lot of advice on how Biden could have handled the exit better. A great deal of this advice is coming from the British press, British politicians and commentators, not least British Generals. The USA has not yet explained why it left in a hurry. The attack at the airport on 26th is perhaps one of the possible factors in the calculations. Perhaps the United States knew that the Afghan Army would not be able to handle the growing menace of ISIS and decided that it is best dealt by the Taliban.

A gradual exit would have meant the USA would have had to broker a deal between Taliban and the Afghan Government. The Taliban was in no mood to negotiate with them. It was best to leave and let matters unfold. Whether there will be violence in the near future or not is too early to say. The Taliban has its own problems with foreign Jihadis wanting to use the country as a base and get their hands on the vast armoury left behind by the Americans. While the liberal press is rummaging about Biden’s failure to ensure women rights, education and human rights based law, the region is facing a descent into something similar to the crises that led to the establishment of Islamic State in Iraq.

Whatever happens, one fact should be obvious. A bit of humility on part of British press, politicians and pontiffs would be appropriate. The American exit from Afghanistan in 2021 so far is no way as disastrous as the British exit from South Asia of 1947. The reality is that it was derogation of responsibility on part of the British administration that led to a fermenting communalism to reach such heights of insane violence. It is a wonder that no victim of that period ever thought of bringing charges of criminal negligence against the British Government. That may have put the two exits in perspective.

Mission Olympics: India Army Marches On

Indian Armed Forces have been in the forefront of selecting and training sportsmen of international repute right from the time of independence in 1947. Dhyan Chand, the hockey wizard who helped India win three gold medal in Olympics, the Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, Rajyavardhan Rathore, the shooter who got the first individual Silver medal in Olympics and Neeraj Chopra, the golden boy of Tokyo Olympics, are all from the Indian Army.

The boxers, shooters, wrestlers and rowers from the Army continue to give a good account of themselves and were quite close to getting medals for the country. At least three to four players from the Army including Balbir Singh (Junior) were always part of the Indian hockey team.

The Army gives tremendous opportunities to the budding sportsmen to rise, shine and zoom. The sports culture, sports infrastructure and facilities, strict regimen and discipline gives these aspiring sportsmen a head start over other competing athletes from the civil street. Having sports competitions from grass root levels of inter-company, squadron or battery.

It was Gen S Padmanabhan, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS ) in 2001 who revived the old tradition of having boys companies for sports in various disciplines. He also started Mission Olympics to prepare sportsmen for representing the country in Olympics. As on today, the Army has 26 boys sports companies in 21 disciplines. These sports companies are affiliated to regimental centres whose troops excel in these disciplines. For example, the Rajputana Regimental (RAJRIF) Centre in Delhi had boys companies in Athletics, Basketball and Volleyball. During the rationalisation, the Athletics Boys company has gone to another regiment whose training centre is located at Faizabad.

Olympic semi-finalist wrestler Subedar Deepak Punia (middle) felicitated by Lt Gen KJS Dhillon (2nd from right) of Rajputana Rifles

Incidentally, Neeraj Chopra is from 4 RAJRIF, a Battalion with a great fighting legacy; it was awarded two Victoria Crosses (equivalent to Param Vir Chakra) and 167 other decorations during World War II. Based on its performance over the years, the unit went on a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Congo from 1960 to 1962. Today there are three serving and three recently retired generals from the battalion; a rare honour for any unit of the Indian Army.

The boys companies pick up promising young boys of 08 to to 14 years of age, who have attained certain levels of expertise in a particular sport for having played at district or state level. These boys are given education in a good day scholar school located close to their military hostel. The Army gives the boys free boarding and lodging as also train them to join the regular army after attaining the age of 18. The boys who show adequate talent to go higher are then sent to Army Sports Institute (ASI) Pune, where scientific coaching and diets are given to these boys and they are prepared for taking part in the Nationals and Olympics.

The ASI was also raised in 2001 and till date has produced 52 olympians. The outstanding sportsmen who qualify for nationals are then picked up by Sports Authority of India (SAI) who prepares these sportsmen for international events like Commonwealth and Asian Games and World U20 Athletics.

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Gen JJ Singh, the then COAS in 2006 introduced additional disciplines like Shooting and Golf wherein promising sports persons including the wards of servicemen were picked up at an early age and trained for Olympics in a systematic manner. Mission Olympics Wing (MOW) in the Directorate General of Military Training (DGMT) was given the overall responsibility to oversee the training of the Olympics probables. The boys companies and the ASI operate under the close scrutiny of the DGMT who also works closely with SAI and Khelo India organisation. To make it more lucrative for the promising sports persons, the Army gives the direct rank of Naib Subedar, a Junior Commissioned Officer on their joining the Army. These selected sportsmen are then prepared for Olympics by giving them training abroad under foreign coaches with the help of SAI.

The selection system of the Indian Army in various sports disciplines is very transparent and fair. Once the sportsman is selected, concerted efforts are put in to ensure that he gets international exposure and coaching in the correct environs. The levels of motivation, dedication and killer instinct inculcated in the sportsmen in the Army stands them in good stead when they compete with the best in the world. In times to come, the Army will surely raise Girls Companies in the major sports as our women athletes have shown more resolve and resilience in Tokyo Olympics and the Army is also getting girls into Sainik Schools, National Defence Academy and other institutions and the intake of officers and ranks is going to enhance for women in the Army. The ethos and elan of the Army instills in every soldier to give their last ounce of blood and sweat for the country and sportsmen are no exception!

Subedar Neeraj Chopra with fellow Armymen of Rajputana Rifles

In Tokyo Olympics, the Army sent 16 probable from various disciplines. Neeraj Chopra got the gold medal, Deepak Punia in wrestling and Satish in boxing narrowly missed medals. The men’s 4x400m relay race team gave an excellent account of themselves by setting a new Asian record; with athletes from the Indian Army. The two rowers Arjun Lal and Arvind Singh got 11th position in the double skull event, the best that any Indians had done so far.

Most of these participants are in their early 20s and with their experience in Tokyo Olympics; they are likely to get greater number of medals for the country at Paris in 2024. We have only three years to prepare and ensure that these promising athletes peak at the time of Olympics just like Neeraj Chopra who was head and shoulders ahead of all other contestants in javelin throw. The country should also follow the model of the Armed Forces to ensure that the very best are sent to the Olympics and they do their nation proud by earning medals somewhat commensurate to our population.

Going Gaga Over Sole Gold

I wanted an escape from my life; from the electricity shortages, to the mosquitoes buzzing in our ear when we slept, from barely having two square meals, to seeing our home getting flooded when it rained… My parents tried their best, but there was only so much they could do — Papa was a cart-puller and Ma worked as a maid
Rani Rampal, Captain, Indian Women’s Hockey Team

Let us not even look at the medal tally of the other countries, including the stupendous achievements of our ‘oriental neighbour’, China, now flexing its muscles so brazenly for a long time in Ladakh. For just about the time needed for ‘instant gratification’ amidst the isolating phobia of a deathly pandemic, with thousands of people still mourning the loss of their loved ones, India exploded at the gold medal won by Neeraj Chopra, the son of a farmer in Haryana and a ‘Subedar’ in the Indian army. The media went gaga. It was once again like that old Rafi song: ‘Japan, Love in Tokyo’!

Achche din’ were finally here. The ‘javelin gold’ seemed sweeter. It was cool, and cacophonic, this collective catharsis! After all, it was the first athletics gold ‘the Vishwaguru’ has won in the entire history of Olympics!

Indeed, it was an ecstatic moment for an eternally ‘frustrated nation’ starved of great ecstasies, great victories, great success and great landmarks at the international level, while stuck with the pathetic long-playing record of the fake glory of a mythical past, and the equally fake illusion that ‘India is a super power’. It’s a rat-trap, this patriotic chest-thumping, with no solid substance or evidence to show. And it arrives with a sorry taste in the mouth, this anti-catharsis of an unrequited dream sequence of a nation-state in bad faith.  

When Abhinav Bindra got the gold in shooting, perhaps completely driven by his own drive and dedication, and with basically little or no backing from the Indian government or sports establishment, it was almost an action-replay of the same scenario. An entire nation rejoiced; it was back to lala… land.

And that is how this fantasy unfolds like a once-upon-a-time fairy tale with that once-in-a-blue-moon happy ending. While it’s the same old sad story yet again, repeated a million times, across the tough and tragic terrain of invisible India, where thousands of talented, dedicated, idealistic and brilliant young girls and boys, are decisively left to their fate.

This is part of a predictable pattern. This rags-to-riches story, with a rare finale! Compulsively looking for a happy ending, it seems India has become a sucker for this fantasy, as and when it arrives. We shall wait for a shining star to emerge from the dingy margins — who will suddenly turn India luminescent. Then we shall burst many more patriotic crackers! After that it be will be back to square one.

For one, let us talk of Vandana Katariya, the first Indian woman hockey player to score a hat trick in the Olympics. Her Dalit family faced a barrage of the choicest casteist abuses in her village Roshnabad in Haridwar by upper caste goons condemning her for India losing to Argentina in the semi finals in a hard-fought game. No Dalit should be allowed inside any sports team of India, they shouted, dancing and bursting crackers. By any social indication, undoubtedly, these two evil and vile men are not alone in holding such views.

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Let us also talk of Rani Rampal, the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team. Rani came from a terribly poor family. As a kid, she played with a broken hockey stick because she loved the game. The coaching academy in Shahabad, Haryana, had no space for her raw talent or her mad dreams.

Finally, when she was accepted due to her sheer tenacity and persistence, like the other children, she too was asked to fetch 500ml of milk every day. “My family could only afford milk worth 200 ml. Without telling anyone, I would mix the milk with water and drink it because I wanted to play,” she has said. She had no sports gear to show: shoes, dress, diet, hockey stick. Rani remembers her childhood with its meticulous details. Anyway, who can ever forget a childhood lived in such difficult conditions!

She joined the Indian team at the age of 14 in 2008, an extraordinary feat and culmination of sheer hard work, amazing motivation, and extraordinary talent. In 2017, Rani bought her family a ‘home’ – it was a promise she had kept. “I finally fulfilled the promise I made to my family and bought them a home. We cried together and held each other tightly,” she said.

Briefly, this brilliant hockey player has scored 117 goals for India, earned as many as 241 international caps, and was part of the team which went to Rio – the first time the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympics in 36 years. Indeed, the caption scored the goal that clinched India’s berth for the Olympics in Tokyo — in the final qualification match against the United States in Bhubaneswar.

This incredible story of success against all odds went viral as her team outclassed other teams in Tokyo; this will continue to float until the next rags-to-success fairy tale arrives from the remote, unknown interiors of Manipur, Assam, Jharkhand, Western UP or Haryana.

In the same vein, shall we also talk of Dutee Chand, Deepa Karmakar, Hima Das, among others, from across the most deprived, difficult and hard life stories ever lived in a starkly unequal India, where they chased their sporting dreams against all odds in the most primitive, impossible and pathetic conditions?

A country of winners is clear-headed. It chooses to nourish, sustain and celebrate talent across the social and economic spectrum since day one. This is a synthesis of skills and praxis at Ground Zero. The State and society becomes the mentor where talented children and teenagers are given the space to learn, grow and spread their wings. This is called a great sporting culture and this is not based on the theory of bursting crackers and dancing one day with laddoos, going gaga all over in a patriotic outburst, and then getting back to the usual rut, waiting for the next solo by another javelin gold medalist.

This is what China did much before it hosted the Olympics in 2008 – this reporter witnessed a great sports revolution emerging across its villages, schools and campuses, with every Chinese child wanting to become an Olympic gold medalist. That is how they beat the Americans in 2008 in terms of gold medals, and almost did that again in Tokyo.

This is the disciplined and dedicated sporting culture built by a world champion like Pullela Gopichand in India, along with his family, who would get up in the dark to coach raw and unknown youngsters. It is Gopichand’s Badminton Academy in Hyderabad which has trained Indian women players to achieve the impossible – break the stronghold of Chinese women badminton champions. Let us not forget that PV Sindhu, who won a bronze in Rio and Tokyo, was originally trained in his academy, among scores of great talent.

Indeed, for a nation which is solely obsessed with a cash-rich IPL and billionaire cricketers, and the clichéd catharsis of fours and sixes and ‘death-overs’, the great Olympics will always remain an unlearnt lesson. India must learn to respect even those who don’t have a medal to show – will they too be left to their unhappy destinies like scores of others? It’s time to realise that often the line between victory and defeat is extremely thin.

The fact is, as long as it does not cherish and nourish the likes of Rani Rampal, Deepa Karmakar, Dutee Chand, Vandana Katariya and Hima Das, among thousands of others at the margins chasing an impossible rainbow, this nation of six billion will continue to be ‘a nation of losers’ – going gaga over a lone gold.

Future Of Afghanistan

The Taliban have once again captured the power in Afghanistan. In one of the swiftest operations the Taliban took control of all major cities including Kabul within a ten-days period. This feat has however, put them in a tight bind on whether to continue with their old traits or try to portray a new picture of the Taliban, which has moved along with the world in the last 20 years and one which is more pragmatic and tolerant and most of all which is politically savvy not violence prone.

A widely held belief is that the Taliban would like to be seen as more pragmatic and inclusive force rather than the one, which brutally ruled Afghanistan earlier. Whatsoever be the case, it would be reckoned by the group’s attitudes towards jihadists and other militants present in Afghanistan, ethnic and religious minorities, women and governance.

Future Government

It has been a week since the Taliban captured the national capital but they are yet to announce any government and its structure. This has led to speculations that intense political activities are going on behind the scenes and the world is waiting with bated breath to know the outcome. In the meantime Taliban have tried to calm concerns about their rule by urging women to join a government that has yet to be formed, declaring an amnesty for people employed by the former government or US and other foreign forces. To assuage these feelings, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in May that the group, once in power, would write laws to ensure the participation of women in public life.

However, reports from Kabul indicate that the former president Hamid Karzai and former minister of external affairs Abdullah Abdullah are still present in the city. This leads credence to the fact that any future government might be based on Islamic foundations but it might be an amalgamation of Islamic and liberal democratic principles.

ALSO READ: Taliban In Frame, Afghanistan In Flames

Karzai and Taliban’s current supremo Haibatullah Akhundzade are relatives and belong to the Popalzai tribe, tracing their lineage to the Durrani clan. So in a possible scenario Haibatullah might lead the Islamic Council, wielding control and power, as in the past and Karzai might be named as the president or prime minister of the new government, in which Abdullah Abdullah might also be included. In addition, non-Taliban leaders like Hizb-i Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former deputy president Karim Khalili might also be included in the new setup.

Further, we also have to take into consideration the rise of young blood amongst the Taliban ranks. Figures such as Mulla Yaqoob, son of former Taliban supremo Mulla Umar now leads its military branch and is credited with the swift capture of power in the country with less bloodshed. This young generation is tech and media savvy, many Taliban leaders now announce the latest developments on Twitter. Coupled with this the Taliban delegation, which took part in the Doha talks, has experienced exposure to the liberal views and they might be more amenable to a not strictly Islamic form of government. As far as the role of Taliban is concerned, they were accepted as an important political force when the former American president invited them to the Doha Talks, lending credence to them as a group, which needs to be engaged with for any feasible solution of the on-going war.

Afghanistan’s Mineral Wealth

The Taliban’s resurgence has once again brought renewed focus on Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral wealth and resources that could transform its economic prospects if developed judiciously. Some conspiracy theories circulated earlier, which claimed that behind the on-going military campaign in Afghanistan, the American experts were also exploring the mineral deposits in Afghanistan.

Lending credence to these theories, CNN on 17 Aug. carried a story, which said that Afghanistan possesses mineral deposits worth nearly $1 trillion. Iron, copper and gold deposits are scattered across provinces. There are also rare earth minerals and, perhaps most importantly, what could be one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium — an essential but scarce component in rechargeable batteries and other technologies vital to tackling the climate crisis.

Said Mirzad former head of the Afghanistan Geological Survey told Science magazine in 2010 that if Afghanistan has a few years of calm, allowing the development of its mineral resources, it could become one of the richest countries in the region within a decade.

Three countries, which have been wooing the Taliban based on this assessment, are Iran, China and India. All of them could provide the expertise, infrastructure and labour force for the further prospecting, mining and processing of these minerals.

Iran and China have been early starters in this regard. Iran has been hosting Taliban delegations to Teheran since last year and in late July 2021, before the recent developments, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a delegation led by the head of the Afghan Taliban political committee Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin.

India on its part began engaging with the Taliban leaders in Doha since September 2020 when the intra-Afghan dialogue began even as New Delhi refused to spell out its policy clearly and said it continues to engage with “all stakeholders”.

Afghan Psyche

Before commenting on the future of Afghanistan, we have to understand the geographic location, socio-cultural fabric and the internal forces, besides the Afghan psyche, all of which have always managed to play a key role in any political activity in the country.

The tribal Pashtun population of Afghanistan, which approximately is 42% has always enjoyed political influence both at the local and national stage. The Pashtun by virtue of being the largest tribe in the south and east has always dominated the national politics of Afghanistan, since the time of Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722-72).

Moreover, the central authority in Kabul has always governed the country through a loosely federal structure. Which means that the central law was more or less observed in major cities and some smaller cities, but at the district and village level the tribal writ was imposed with a heavy hand.

ALSO READ: Understanding The Resurgent Taliban

Added to this is the overall Afghan psyche, which has always remained fiercely independent and loyal to its tribal and clan ties besides being devout Muslims. To control them through a loose federal system remains the only wise choice, so as to let the tribal and clan ties continue and dominate the rural population but the major decisions are taken by the powers in the big cities.

This might be one of the reasons, which is forcing Taliban to evolve a government, which rules with an iron fist from the centre but at the village and district level the local tribes manage their affairs in their own style whilst participating in the development of the rural areas and the country as a whole.

Online Learning Has Failed Education For All

From primary to university level, students all over India are getting lessons online since March 2020 in the wake of the first wave of Covid-19 related pandemic. In order to contain the spread of the killer virus and protect the health of students and teachers, all state governments and administrations of Union Territories had to shut down educational institutions. In online classes an alternative has been found, whatever that is worth to the indefinite suspension of teacher-student meeting in the confines of classroom. The community of teachers, students and their guardians are all in agreement that online classes even for students from well-to-do families with the best of required gadgets at their disposal are no substitute for time tested physical classes held within four walls that allow teachers to understand how well the lessons are received by students.

More importantly, what is missed out at all levels, particularly at graduate and post-graduate classes, is the interaction between students and teachers that is possible only when they are physically present in one place. At post-graduate level, students will always have occasions to call on professors after the class for discussions and guidance. Such interaction is de rigueur for students pursuing MPhil and PhD.

The inevitable result of the pandemic forced absence of students and teachers from schools, colleges and universities is the piling of countrywide deficit in education, which remains to be assessed. The situation is now so desperate that in many cities, students and teachers are holding regular peaceful demonstrations in front of closed institutions such as Presidency College and the next door Calcutta University for quick resumption of classes.

Going a step beyond, the benevolent teachers in the two iconic institutions and also in several other cities are holding classes out in the open next to college and varsity campuses. In a growing number of places, teachers concerned about the welfare of students are holding informal classes for them. Devi Kar, director of Kolkata’s prestigious Modern High School, wonders when from shopping malls to theatres have reopened with safety protocols in place, why shouldn’t students be allowed to go back to class? She thinks it’s time educational institutions had reopened.

Many teachers have started classes in the open for students

Speaking about children from poor families, Devi Kar says: “There are students who are not equipped with the right devices and also those who don’t have the proper home environment for online classes. These students have been suffering a lot. All I can say is that nothing can replace a class where the teacher and the student can communicate face to face. The government and parents have to decide on this, but we are ready to welcome our children back.” She may be in Kolkata, but what she says is the representative voice of concerned teachers and school administrators all over the country.

ALSO WATCH: ‘Online Classes Are Temporary Solution’

Leave out the tier one and tier two cities, vast swathes of the country have poor mobile network coverage. Connections are available in fits and starts. Even if the underprivileged parents somehow manage to buy smart phones and pay for internet connection, the poor infrastructure will invariably play spoilsport. In multitude of families in the country, the children happen to be the first generation to go to school. They need hand-holding at every stage of learning.

During shutdown of schools, the parents with very little or no education cannot stand for the offspring’s teachers at home. As a result, whether they have smart phones or not, the majority of children from economically distressed families are making hardly any gains from online classes. In an article in the largely circulated Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika, Nobel prize winner economist Abhijit V. Banerjee who heads West Bengal government’s global advisory board writes, because of the long closure of schools, a large number of students are totally cut off from studies. Not only that, whatever they had learnt in pre-Covid days they had forgotten by now. A challenge for teachers on primary school reopening then will be to make an assessment of reading and writing capacity of students. On that basis the teachers will be required to bring up the learning capacity of students in alignment with classes they sit.

The Covid-19 in its two waves has had a devastating nationwide effect on jobs and income. A report by International Labour Organisation says the health crisis has not only wiped out millions of jobs in Asia and the Pacific but there is also a major surge in underemployment as workers are asked to work “reduced hours or no hours at all.” As for India, a survey based report says that a major percentage of people who lost their jobs in the first wave that lasted beyond April 2020 are yet to find gainful employment.

In their report ‘City of dreams no more, a year on: Worklessness and active labour market policies in urban India’, Swati Dhingra and Fjolla Kondirolli say: “Unemployment spells are, on average, almost half a year for unemployed individuals. Employed individuals are working on average six hours less than their usual weekly hours, and the share of them with work for the full year has halved since the previous year.” Many of those who could not find a job and also those whose income has shrunk considerably have been forced by circumstances to withdraw their children from schools.

ALSO READ: Online Learning – A Distant Dream For Poor

In the process, thousands of dreams are dying young. As this happened with 12-year old Nand Kishore whose father Ashwini Yadav from Bihar working with a spices trade agency in Kolkata’s first lost his job in April 2020 and then reemployed with a deep cut in wages. He had to withdraw his son from a primary school in Kolkata and sent him back to his village. Thousands of children all over the country had the same experience as Nand Kishore.

Banerjee says whenever the schools reopen with health safety protocol in place, the principal task of all concerned will be get “one hundred per cent” children back to school. He wonders how about local governments write and broadcast a slogan that will lead to the return of children who since March 2020 strayed into any kind of work in farms, factories and markets to class once again. That this will not be an easy task Banerjee acknowledges.

In the extremely trying times of the pandemic, countless families have lost income. Is there an alternative to mothers not taking their daughters with them to do work in neighbourhood households or boys helping their fathers in running small shops or just going to distant places to find work when survival of families is at stake? Whatever the challenge, the disturbingly high rate of school dropout of children among poor families during the pandemic needs to be corrected for the sake of the nation’s future as soon as the health situation permits.

From Tamil Nadu in the south to West Bengal in the east, the states are waiting for the right moment for reopening of educational institutions. But on government directive schools all over Odisha have started reopening. Delhi Disaster Management Authority has allowed schools to start physical classes for students of class X and class XII but in a staggered manner.

Students whose families have weathered the Covid-19 created economic crisis will make good the learning deficit with help from teachers, private tuition and parents. But Banerjee’s concern is about the children who had to quit schools in large numbers in unfortunate circumstances. He is urging the states, NGOs and civil society not to forget the dropouts. “In case we are overtaken by the feeling that during difficult times of the pandemic, school dropouts will be inevitable, then that will prove to be disastrous for the children and for the country. There must not be any compromise in our commitment to bring all such students back to school. In the country’s fight against poverty, there has to be an unstinting commitment to enrol in schools all the ones who dropped out during the pandemic.” The children must be in school at all cost and not to be seen working in fields and factories, that is a blot on civilisation.  

Taliban In Frame, Afghanistan In Flames, India In Firing Range

Buzkashi, the national game of the people of Afghanistan, has horsemen competing to possess the headless body of a goat. In one of the world’s most enduring ironies, the country has itself become the goat, being dragged and tossed around. A horrified world watches as an elected government is losing out to the Taliban, a group of women-hating men poised to take control.

They have rendered impotent and helpless the outsiders, all powerful, that have been either backing them diplomatically and militarily, or opposing them meekly, with wordy resolutions.

It happened to the British and the Russians and now, it is the Americans. The unprecedented turn of events has yet again shown that Afghanistan cannot be controlled from outside. Even before the United States ends its longest war by this month-end, the Taliban are knocking at the gates of Kabul, poised to win this round of what has been gamely called the “Great Game”.

The Game’s original players, erstwhile imperial powers Britain and Russia, now pale shadows of themselves, are riding piggy-back on the United States and China respectively. As the US departs, yet dominates the global discourse, the ascending player is China. Sadly, the global line-up the two lead, guarantees more violence and bloodshed for the Afghan people.

This round unfolds without a political solution that the US naively sought, signing a deeply flawed Doha Agreement of February 2020. It gave the Taliban primacy and legitimacy, without securing an end to the conflict and certainly, to terrorism. Now, since everybody is talking, the world is witnessing a collective shedding of crocodile tears.

The only thing that seems certain is prolonged violence. A UN report says 6,000 fighters of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban and along with thousands of ‘volunteers’ from many countries. The Pentagon has woken up to the presence of “terrorist safe havens” on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Time will tell who has played what role and why.

All this does remind of the past – except that the world’s most powerful nation, having conceded ground, both territorially and tactically, is left conducting aerial operations from outside. Signals from Washington, as it licks its wounds worse than in Vietnam of the 1970s, are that this may not continue after August 30. The Afghans will be left on their own – abandoned to their bloody fate.

ALSO READ: A Resurgent Taliban In India’s Backyard

If this sounds like a diatribe, well, it is, against all those who had begun with lofty ideas at the 2001 Bonn Conference to facilitate a moderate regime in Kabul. Two decades hence, a war-weary Joe Biden confirms what George Bush Jr. said in 2002, that “nation building” was never the aim in Afghanistan. The Afghans, then, have a valid question: why are/were they there?

India was not alone in 2003, when its External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha lobbied with the US against a military campaign in Iraq. But they persisted, with a patently false excuse that Saddam Husain had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) which were never found. Super-confident after removing the Taliban from Kabul in response to 9/11, Bush Jr. needed to avenge his father’s humiliation at not being re-elected America’s President.

The Iraq campaign badly distracted Afghanistan’s. Its consequences are now clearly visible. Eighteen years hence, by end-2021, the US military will quit Iraq. Meanwhile, in addition to Al Qaida, another Frankestein has been created in the Islamic State (IS).

Again, India was not alone when its then National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon pleaded against the US announcing a firm date to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Pakistan-hosted Taliban would merely “sit out”, Menon had warned. That, and worse has happened since Donald Trump struck a deal with yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’, bypassing the US-supported and US-dependent government in Kabul. That hit the credibility of all those in the world community who supported the “global war on terror” in Afghanistan.

To put it bluntly, this is America’s hubris. Its failure to see where the Taliban, ousted from Kabul, had moved to was compounded by failure/unwillingness to touch them. It was satisfied getting Osama Bin Laden. It kept deluding itself, and the world, in seeking to separate the ‘good’ Taliban from the ‘bad’. To cover up its own failure at the eleventh hour, it expected everyone else to seek an “Afghan-led, Afghan owned” political solution. Nobody asked why the Taliban would want it.

This is a lesson for Big Powers: you can light a fire in any corner of the world, but cannot douse it. Taliban became ‘good’ since they are not supposed to have ambitions outside of Afghanistan. But what about Al Qaida and the IS? Will the Big powers return to Afghanistan, Iraq or any other place if they perceive a new global threat? Someone has aptly said that those who do not learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

Of the others, if China is ambitious in Afghanistan, Russia and Iran are being plain opportunistic. The hapless Central Asians must seek American, Chinese or Russian help to fend off a resurgence in Islamist extremism at home that a Taliban triumph guarantees.

India is again on the wrong side, like it was when the Russians left and now, when the Americans are leaving. It invested three billion dollars and earned goodwill. Will it now be India’s fate to “do more” in Afghanistan at the US’s behest, to compete with China and Pakistan?

That, of course, will depend upon how the Kabul-Delhi equations develop. A furious debate has ensued if India should talk to the Taliban and whether Taliban are interested in talking to the Indians, when they have support of India’s regional adversaries. Otherwise supportive of the present government, Vivek Katju, an old Af-Pak hand and envoy to Kabul, calls it “policy paralysis”.

ALSO READ: Four Lakh Displaced As Taliban Advances

Conventional wisdom is that a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul would mark Pakistan’s victory. But it will prove Pyrrhic, what with flow of refugees, drugs and arms. It successfully hoodwinked the West while benefiting from them militarily and materially, nurtured the Taliban and calibrated their across–the-border operations and backed them in negotiations. Islamabad’s more important move, however, is effectively shifting a part of its allegiance from West to China.

Not a factor before, China is now the region’s strongest power-player, with global reach. Beijing has embraced the Taliban diplomatically and as reports indicate, also militarily. It is poised to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. China gains greater access to the Indian Ocean and to the Gulf, through Iran. Not just geopolitics, geo-economics is also at work.

Now, the fast-shifting ground situation. The Taliban have played their military card commendably by seeking to eliminate the re-emergence of the Northern Alliance that had helped the US remove them from Kabul in 2001. They have captured huge territory and some of the provincial capitals from Herat in the west to Badakhshan in the north and closed the gates for any external intervention on the ground.

But it’s not going to be easy. Embedded in their campaign are seeds of resistance from ethnic minorities who will fight for sheer survival, and not just against Pashtun domination. It’s life-and-death for the Uzbeks and Tajiks, who are in significant numbers and the Hazaras who, as Shias, are traditional Pashtun targets. Battles are likely to be fought for long for control of the cities and the countryside.

It is almost certain that a government, if born out of Taliban’s military victory, will face economic sanctions. Without hand-holding, Afghanistan is bound to suffer. Besides political instability, economic misery will worsen, not to speak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some questions for the near-future: how long and to what effect will the threatened sanctions work? As had happened with the Myanmar military junta, will biggies of the world engage in behind-the-scene engagements to guard their business interests? Not to forget, a Taliban mission operated in Washington till 9/11 happened, because the US wanted to guard its interest in Afghan and Central Asian oil and gas reserves.

How will the Islamic world respond to the near-certain birth, or re-birth, of the Islamic Emirate? Now that the West has taken a beating, will the definition of terrorism change? What will be the new global security threat perceptions and how will they be responded to?

The new chapter of ‘Great Game’ has more questions than answers. Not the least, the fate of that Buzkashi’s goat.

The writer is co-author, with late Sreedhar, of Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (Oxford Books, 1988) and Afghan Buzkashi: Great Game & Gamesmen (Wordsmiths, 2000). He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Covid Has Deepened India’s Poverty Pit

Stark poverty and hunger is stalking contemporary India but no one wants to see it or talk about it, especially the establishment and its economists. If statistics could tell stories of infinite sorrow, then nothing less than a mass tragedy, devastating, invisible and ghettoized, is currently stalking the inner lanes of an unhappy Indian landscape, and spreading with as much deathly intent as the deadly delta virus. 

First, let us talk of the ‘missing women’. The unorganized sector, with practically no rights for workers, operated by cold-blooded sharks outside official labour laws, with not even job protection for fixed days, or fixed wages, shelter and crèches for children, no maternity and health benefits for women, no provident fund/gratuity/pension, or trade union rights, etc, constitutes more than 90% of the Indian workforce. Barring some states like Kerala, Delhi and West Bengal, workers in the unorganized sector largely don’t have fundamental rights. Half of them are women – and most of them are from the poorest communities – landless Dalits, adivasis, extremely backward castes, Muslims.

The fact is thousands of women seem to have disappeared from the work force since the pandemic. So where have all the women gone?

It’s a fact that majority of domestic helps, working in the gated societies, for instance, lost their meager income since March last year. Many of them were socially ostracized, unceremoniously sacked, not paid their wages, and banned from entering the gated societies. Many were compelled to ‘migrate’ back to their jobless small towns or villages with eternally stagnant economies.

Workers were told by their employers to leave the dingy tenements in urban ghettos, where 5 or more would share a room, because they could not pay the rent. Their children opted out of schools. Many women, and their kids, were seen ‘begging’ outside the posh markets in Noida, even as the rich filled their cars with goodies during the relaxation in curfew hours.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

Many families have been starving, or eating one meal. All of them want to work and earn with dignity; others are afraid to stand in long, crowded food queues because of fear of the virus. For a long period those who did not have Aadhar or ration cards, had no clue how to get food from the public distribution system, even in a city like Delhi.

Consulting firm Dalbert, in a study conducted during March-October last year, reported that women have reduced their food intake because of less income, their rest hours have decreased and ‘unpaid care work hours’ have increased, at least a tenth of the women said that food is in very short supply and they are eating less, 16% had limited or no access to menstrual pads, while 33% of married women had no access to contraceptives as the pandemic disrupted public health outreach programmes. More than 43 per cent women were yet to recover their paid work. While it was terrible last year, the second surge devastated them. The study surveyed 15,000 women and 2,300 men from low-income households in 10 Indian cities.

“If the virus does not kill us, poverty will kill us,” said a balloon seller last winter in Noida. The invisible working class ghetto inhabited by Dalits and extremely backward caste people from Bengal, Bihar and UP, in Noida, surrounded by swanky highways and palatial houses, became jobless overnight on March 24, 2020. The street food vendor found no buyer, rickshaw-pullers no passengers, traffic light sellers no customers, even as thousands of construction workers were rendered jobless as the real estate industry crashed. Workers in the unorganized and small-scale industry, its back broken by demonetisation and GST, found a quagmire beneath their feet – rapidly sinking, and not a straw to hold on.

Stark poverty and hunger has been systematically turned invisible in India in the neo-liberal era, especially in the metros. Therefore, it was disconcerting for the cocooned affluent society when images of thousands of migrant workers suddenly emerged on highways, walking under a scorching sun. Pray, who are these condemned and exiled people?

With their worn out clothes, sacks and plastic bags, mothers holding their children, often barefoot, hungry and thirsty, with absolutely no relief from the central government, they were escaping the stark social/economic uncertainty after a lockdown was suddenly declared by the Centre. Among many enduring images of this Indian reality was the image of a dead mother at the Muzaffarpur Railway Station, her little child tugging at her sari. She was a migrant worker trying to go ‘home’ – from Ahmedabad to Bihar.

ALSO READ: Covid Ruined My Life – Financially

Delhi is classified as the most urban state (98%) in India. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Delhi reported the lowest labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women during the pandemic. Female LFPR was as low as 5.5% compared to the male LFPR of 57. Unemployment among women was 47%, compared to 21 among men.

As many as 10 crore people reportedly lost their jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. While in the pre-election scenario in 2019, India marked the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years, a reality the Modi-led government tried to fudge, currently, it is estimated, approximately 140 million people are jobless, and this includes the corporate sector. The jobless figures are hazy; unemployment has shot up to 11.7 %, last year it was 8. Job losses have been higher in Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, due to the impact of Covid.

A new Pew Research Center study states that consequent to the ‘deep recession’ in 2020, the middle class has shrunk by 32 million. This substantiates the speculation that millions of middle class households have been pushed into low income groups. The 32 million listed by Pew accounts for “60 per cent of the global retreat” in the number of people in the middle-income tier (defined here as people with incomes of $10-20 a day).

The number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) has increased by 75 million because of the COVID-19 recession. This factor also accounts for 60% of the global increase in poverty.

According to the Pew study, only 19% women remained employed and a high 47% suffered a permanent job loss, not returning to work even by the end of 2020. That is, almost half of the women workforce has effectively ‘disappeared’.

The study reported: “Prior to the pandemic, it was anticipated that 99 million people in India would belong in the global middle class in 2020. A year into the pandemic, this number is estimated to be 66 million, cut by a third. Meanwhile, the number of poor in India is projected to have reached 134 million, more than double the 59 million expected prior to the recession…”

Surely, there are millions of micro cases spread like unwritten stories of infinite inequality and economic/social discrimination across the remote rural terrain and in urban ghettos. They need to be documented, filmed, and written. The scale of this human tragedy could be epical.

Indeed, Mamata Banerjee made a cryptic point recently in Delhi: she said that it’s high time we have ‘sachche din’ in India –we already have had an overdose of ‘achche din’.

Saudis Plagued By ‘Misyar’, An UnIslamic Practice

The Saudi society is currently facing a dilemma bordering on societal norms, morals and Sharia. This peculiar situation has developed mainly due to the increase in number of Zawaz Al-Misyar or Misyar marriages in the Kingdom.

A Misyar marriage is considered legal across Arab countries, but is not favoured upon due to its immoral basis, though legally it stands the trial of Sharia. Its opponents say that no reference to such marriage is found in the Holy Quran or Ahadith (the saying and practices of the prophet Muhammad-PBUH). They further put it at par with Muttah marriage, which is prevalent amongst the Imamiyyah Shiites.

What is Misyar?

Basically, Misyar is a contract under which the husband and wife give up several rights by their own free will, such as living together, equal division of nights between wives, the wife’s rights to housing, and maintenance money (nafaqa), and the husband’s right to home-keeping and access etc.

The couple continue to live separately from each other, as before their marriage, but get together regularly, often for sexual relations in a permissible and halal manner. Although allowed in some Muslim countries, Misyar is not popular with many because women lose nearly all their rights in this confidential marriage. A large number of such marriages end up in divorce.

A Saudi study conducted by Mada Bint Abdul Rahman Al Qurashi at the King Saud University confirmed the necessity of working to reduce the exorbitant costs of marriage so that some men do not have to resort to a Misyar marriage for economic motives. The study stressed the need not to increase the mehr (gifts and money given by husband to his wife after the nikah), as it is one of the main reasons for the spread of Misyar marriage in Saudi society, particularly among not well-off young Saudis.

The Saudi study showed that one of the reasons for husbands resorting to Misyar marriage is that most Saudi women do not accept the idea of polygamy. The study further called for conducting studies aimed at uncovering the reasons for the spread of a Misyar marriage among different segments and groups of the Saudi society in different cities of the Kingdom, so a proper strategy could be formed and a campaign started against it.

It showed that women often resort to Misyar marriage, forfeiting their right to maintenance and overnight stay, in order to obtain a husband who provides her with the life needs that were difficult for her, and that most divorced women resort to Misyar marriage because of their desire to marry and chastity, as well as the woman’s desire to move and travel freely.

Even the Saudi government is aware of the ill effects of Misyar, Al Watan newspaper quoting government sources reported in 2018 that such marriages are often short-lived, with most ending in divorce from anywhere between 14 and 60 days.

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Some time back a prominent Riyadh cleric attributed its proliferation to men unwilling to shoulder the full responsibilities of polygamous marriage, which is permitted in Islam as long as all wives are treated equally.

Senior Saudi journalist Tariq Al Maeena in one of his columns published in the Saudi Gazette daily in 2019, termed Misyar as a “license to have multiple partners without much responsibility or expense”. “Reports in the Saudi press have spoken of growing concerns over the number of children fathered by Saudi males in their trips abroad and abandoned for all practical purposes.” he wrote.

Misyar and Sharia

Though no reference to Misyar is found either in the Holy Quran or the Ahadith, one is also not sure how and when it crept in the Saudi society. Moreover Misyar is permissible only under Hanbali Fiqh (school of Sharia or jurisprudence), which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics say the practice has proliferated since 1996, when the then Grand Mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious authority Abed Al Aziz Ibn Baz, legitimised it with an Islamic edict. But no one is ready to ascertain what were the factors based on which the Grand Mufti issued such a controversial fatwa.

Since then many fatwas have been issued concerning the legality of the Misyar marriage. At the beginning Sheikh Al Athemain, made a distinction between the legal aspect and the moral or social consequences of the ambulant marriage. Nevertheless he did not say that it is against the Sharia; however, what scholars fear, are its dangerous and unpredictable social consequences, which no one is ready to address.

According to Sheikh Al Athemain and Sheikh Al Yusef Qardawi, the Misyar is a lawful marriage since it includes a contract, a declaration and a dowry. However, within this marriage, the fact that the Misyar wife gives up her rights of cohabitation and nafaqa are ones which no jurist is ready to address.

Most of the Islamic jurists take a very convoluted and cautious approach to the issue by saying that it fulfills the requirement of the Sharia and when pointed out that no reference to it is present in either the Holy Quran or the Ahadith, they evade response. But most of the Indian fuqah (Jurists) who follow the Fiqh-e Hanafi describe Misyar as an unIslamic practice.

Mufti Amanat Al Qasmi, Mufti at Dar-ul Ifta (Department of Jurisprudence) at Darul Uloom – Waqf, Deoband says categorically that fulfilling the legal aspects of a lawful marriage in certain aspects doesn’t grant the status of legality to Misyar marriages. He opines that as a jurist and alim (scholar) one should also consider the moral and customary aspects of a decision and should not be bound by the legalese and take cover under them. In addition Misyar also exposes the contradictions found in the Saudi society.

One can only hope that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has taken many progressive steps to ensure rights to women, he might also take-up this issue with jurists and campaign against it. In addition he should also call for decreasing the mehr amount, which not every young Saudi is able to meet, therefore trying to solve two issues with one edict and also freeing the Saudi society from an allegedly unIslamic act.

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