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Revival of Gandhi during COVID-19

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Authors: Omir Kumar and Wriju Banerjee*

This article attempts to trace Gandhian ideals and principles in the measures adopted by India to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, no national leader imagined that this pandemic will be the reason they’ll be forced to change their governance models and will be compelled to devise new strategies to effectively combat the pandemic as well as ensure the smooth functioning of their country. As the virus rapidly spread throughout the world we witnessed national lockdowns being announced, economies crashing, healthcare institutions being overburdened with a rising number of cases, and a general sense of helplessness among countries. India was also one of the 195 countries in the world that fell victim to the novel coronavirus. Although countries struggled to adapt their modes of governance with pandemic India on the other hand saw this as a unique opportunity to rethink its approach towards governance. It formulated numerous policies to revive its economy and at the same time combat the pandemic. The call for Vocal for local, domestic production of medical equipment, constructing a decentralized strategy to combat the impacts of the virus were all measures that assisted India to tactically mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Recently it was also one of the few countries to successfully manufacture a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

These efforts have been applauded by the international community at large but one thing that has gone unnoticed is that most of these measures have a commonality which is that they all have an underlying philosophy of Gandhian ideas behind them. But before we attempt to trace Gandhian ideals in India’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic it’s imperative to first understand Gandhi. 

Understanding Gandhi

The model way used by states to combat the pandemic resembles Gandhian thought and policy in ways more than one. If one were to look closely, they could see the growth of the principles of self-sufficiency within Gandhian thought, which ultimately culminated in the evolution of the Panchayati raj system as we know it today. Gandhi’s adamance for a local, decentralized model of governance is deep-seated in the influence that his younger self grew up with. A subject that intrigued him most was the evolution of the Western capitalist model. The idea of the ‘economic man’, derived from classical economics which emphasized the self-interested nature of all rational beings drew sharp criticism from all opposing thinkers, one of whom was John Ruskin. In his book ‘Unto the Last’, Ruskin dismissed the Smithian notion of division of labour as dehumanizing. This book was Gandhi’s earliest exposure to the theme of capitalism, and it heavily influenced Gandhi’s subsequent works. He wrote Hind Swaraj five years later which followed the same critique of western capitalism and used it to ground the need for self-rule. His focus rested on the countryside and the need to make village republics self-sufficient.

A subtheme within Gandhi’s critique of western capitalism was his opposition to the greed that he believed capitalism harboured, and so what followed was an equally ardent opposition of consumerism. His pushback took the form of an emphasis on a minimalistic  way of living which popularised the image of him known to India today, that of an old man sparingly clothed, whose ashram only served vegetables without spices and which advocated for a simpler way of living. Minimalism was his way of pushing for a ‘limitation of wants’ and a return to simpler times.

Not wanting to see India be bound to the mills of Lancashire and Manchester to feed its consumerist tendencies, Gandhi rallied for the use of khadi which became a popular symbol of his struggle to repel British rule and dependency. He referred to it as the ‘livery of freedom’, but to Gandhi, khadi meant a lot of things. Rather than just being a homespun cloth, he believed khadi contained the essence of a revolution and was a symbol of Indian self-respect and dignity. Further, it was a symbol of an undivided people, of homogeneity and an absence of status. Most importantly, it signified the economic liberation of the masses. In line with Hind Swaraj, he believed that poverty stopped millions from attaining political liberty, as it stripped them of their dignity and limited their potential. He envisioned a humane economic model to counter the British model being enforced upon them and found it in the khadi industry which to this day harbours millions under its employment. Khadi suited Gandhi’s purposes as he recognized that India’s population required labour-intensive employment and so what followed also was opposition to machine usage in places of employment where the same work could be done by people. Poverty he considered one of the many hurdles to attaining ‘Poorna swaraj’, or complete independence.

An extensive character portrait of Gandhi wouldn’t be complete without accounting for the influence Tolstoy’s writings had on him. Gandhi was introduced to Tolstoy’s work during his time in South Africa. Tolstoy by then had written extensively on nonviolent resistance and Christian Anarchism in particular. His book, ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’, published in 1894 laid out his basis for opposing Christian institutionalism, arguing that the ultimate authority for any Christian is their God thus denouncing all forms of state control and instead advocating for divided authority and servant leadership. Alongside John Ruskin, Tolstoy was one of the most important modern writers who influenced Gandhi, with whom he exchanged letters and ideas. Gandhi’s first endeavour at self-sufficiency came in the form of the Tolstoy farm, an ashram he set up in South Africa during his satyagraha against discrimination of Indians.

This idea of building self-sufficient economies eventually seeped into his ideas of economic liberation for the masses and self-dependency of localized units, developing into the idea of the Panchayati Raj system.  This was the culminating point for all Gandhian thought, an anarchical model focused on meeting the minimal needs of all as opposed to feeding the consumerist tendencies of a few. A humane economic model prioritizing the maximization of social welfare but above all, a system that can effectively sustain itself and tend to its own needs. Gandhi believed such a unit would have sustainable agricultural practices without recourse to pollution or excessive usage of pesticides and fertilizers, relying on eco-friendly practices. The land would be owned by those who tilled it and not zamindars, while others would find employment in rural industries such as khadi, handlooms, sericulture, and handicrafts that rely on family labour and do not lead to concentration of wealth. Panchayati raj systems today still hold true to this statement, as many operate their own educational and medical institutions at a time when industrialization has led to the concentration of population in a few cities, where the standard of living has fallen heavily with an equal increment in the size of the ecological footprint.It was in these conditions that Panchayati Raj institutions put up an applaudable fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tracing Gandhi in India’s Fight Against COVID-19

India’s strategy against the pandemic has reflected a lot of Gandhian Principles within it. Federalism and decentralization got a new lease of life in India with the COVID-19 outbreak. If there is one positive that the Indian polity can take away from the crisis, it is the renewed focus on these two tenets. Essential for a democratic nation, both have been enshrined in our Constitution. That is why we have distinct lists earmarking subjects to states and the Centre separately. But time and again, both have taken a backseat, getting overwhelmed by a powerful Centre. This however changed. Public health, as a subject, falls under the State List of the Indian Constitution. And by utilizing its full potential, several states have shot to the center of attention along with the escalating medical emergency.

By responding in a timely and organized manner, these states reflected Gandhi’s commitment to a decentralized form of governance. Take, for example, Kerala. The southern state announced an economic package of Rs 20,000 crore on March 19, being the first state to do so in the country. This was a week before the Centre announced the Rs 1.7 lakh crore financial package to help people during the crisis. Kerala’s announcement was significant because it came at a time when the state had little money in its coffers. Kerala was the first state in the country to report a positive case of the novel coronavirus in late January 2020. In rural Kerala, Kudumbashree movements linked women self-help groups to the panchayat system to provide relief to women and children during the pandemic. Dharavi, being the largest slum in Asia, would have had massive deaths if it was not effectively controlled by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Similarly, the cities of Chennai, Kolkata, and hilly areas that have a long history of Panchayati raj systems and are still governed by it were able to contain the spread of the pandemic. To effectively handle the crisis, it is important to look at the number of recoveries, the number of fatalities along comorbidities. There exists a positive correlation between operating panchayat raj system and effectively handling the pandemic. The robust public delivery system of the Indian state combined with a three-tier government structure was extremely effective in ensuring an effective delivery mechanism of essentials to the most marginalized sections of the society. The Prime Minister has also urged all the Indian States to leverage the decentralized models followed during elections and disaster management to tackle the logistical problems associated with the covid vaccine delivery system. A decentralized mechanism will prove to be extremely efficacious for the delivery of the vaccine to the most remote areas of India. On the economic front, India’s commitment to emerging out of the pandemic as self-reliant or ‘aatmanirbhar’ nation also reinstates Gandhi’s principle for self-sufficiency. His call for rejecting western clothing and manufacturing khadi aimed to serve two purposes – reducing India’s dependency on foreign nations and uplifting the local economy. India’s campaign ‘Vocal for Local’ also intends to achieve these two objectives. Initially, when the whole world was grappling to fight the virus India emerged as the largest producer and supplier of hydroxychloroquine, a prospective drug for treating covid-19. It also exported 50 million hydroxychloroquine tablets to the USA. India also significantly ramped up its production capacity of PPEs and N95 masks with three lakh units each being manufactured daily eventually leading to a surplus within domestic inventories prompting exports of N95 masks to foreign nations. The latest addition to India’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 virus is how it has successfully managed to develop a vaccine. COVAXIN, India’s indigenous COVID-19 vaccine was developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and has already rolled out in the entire country. The Oxford-AstraZeneca has been manufactured locally by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. It says it is producing more than 50 million doses a month. India is also all set to export the vaccines to countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, etc projecting itself as a self-reliant player in the international arena. Even as we approach a post-pandemic world, India’s adoption of Gandhian ideals can prove to be a sustainable strategy that can be continued to help India climb up the global order and present itself as a global hegemon.  

*Wriju Banerjee is a Second Year Student of Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. His area of interest include Philosophy and Political Theory. He plans to enter Academia after his graduation.

Omir Kumar currently doing his major in Political Science with a minor in English from Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. He has keen interest in Public Policy and Political Theory and plans to work in the Public Policy Research domain in the near future.

South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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South Asia

India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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South Asia

S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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