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South Asia

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.

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South Asia

Economic And Political Reform Is Needed In Sri Lanka, Not State Violence

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Image source: Wikipedia

Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence has highlighted years of political and economic mismanagement and a reliance on state-sanctioned violence in response to legitimate protests. Legitimate reform and respect for human rights is required if the island nation is to act in the best interests of its people.

The crisis has resulted in the import-reliant country’s foreign currency reserves running dry, meaning that the government is unable to pay for imports of basic goods, including food and fuel. Rising inflation of 17 per cent has meant that any food available is now too expensive, with a kilogram of rice costing 500 rupees when it previously cost 80. The lack of fuel has meant that Sri Lankans are suffering through 12-hour power cuts, with the government asking people to work from home to save fuel.

Making matters worse, the government has defaulted on its foreign debts for the first time since independence. Sri Lanka’s debt is approximately $51 billion, making it now reliant on negotiations with its creditors, such as the Asian Development Bank, to pause payments so basic goods can be purchased.

As always, these issues are affecting Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable, particularly those in poorer rural areas, the elderly and people with disability. There are reports of people dying while lining up for fuel in the heat. This has the potential to worsen into a significant humanitarian crisis, with half the country sinking into poverty and food insecurity rising.

This is a big step back for a country that was once regarded as one of Asia’s success stories, formerly enjoying economic growth, burgeoning industries and a wealthier middle class. The was a sign of a country that was beginning to rebuild after a brutal civil war that affected all Sri Lankans.

While the government has blamed the crisis on the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent drop in tourism, the cause is closer to home, and the government deserves significant blame.

The President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, previously slashed taxes and focused on domestic markets rather than exports, creating an economy reliant on imports, which created unsustainable levels of debt. The government has also racked up huge debts to fund irresponsible infrastructure projects which has severely depleted the country’s foreign reserves. The banning of imports of chemical fertilisers left Sri Lanka’s large agriculture sector crippled and increased debt through the reliance on importing food.

The Rajapaksa family has ruled Sri Lanka for over two decades, with Mahinda Rajapaksa ruling as President between 2005 and 2015 and then as Prime Minister until his recent resignation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has served as President since 2019 and several family members have long held prominent positions within the military and government. This has resulted in rampant nepotism, corruption and poor economic decisions that have turned the public away from the once popular family.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has led to nation-wide protests, which have rapidly turned violent. Protesters have stormed government buildings and government forces have been injured. Citizens are justifiably angry about years of poor economic decisions that has crippled the economy, leaving millions without the most basic of goods.

Authorities have reacted to this unrest with a heavy handed approach. The deployment of the military with orders to shoot looters on sight and the use of water cannons and tear gas had led to two deaths of the arrest of over two hundred people, including peaceful protesters. President Rajapaksa has also declared two state of emergencies, severely restricting the rights of Sri Lankans and giving authorities sweeping powers to detain legitimate protesters or those breaking curfew. This raises serious concerns about the governments respect for human rights and will do little to rebuild trust in government.

Instead of the use of violence to crush protests, the government needs to take responsibility and undertake meaningful economic and political reforms to address the crisis and quell unrest.

Human rights need to be at the forefront of any solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has rightly called for any attacks on civilians and peace protesters to be independently and transparently investigated. State of emergency declarations and curfews should also cease, allowing Sri Lankans their right to peacefully protest about legitimate issues of concern. Any peaceful protester illegally detained needs to be released immediately.

The government should also work with international partners to find rapid solutions to critical problems, such as providing basic goods to their citizens. The decision by the World Bank to provide $600 million in assistance and ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are welcome. But more needs to be done.

The government needs to undertake meaningful economic reforms, including reversing damaging tax cuts and reducing debt, so the IMF will agree to a more substantial financial package that allows the country to recover.

The democratic process also needs to be respected. The government should maintain dialogue and consult with other political parties’, civil society and non-governmental organisations to find adequate solutions to the economic and political problems facing the country.

This includes negotiating with opposition parties to reach political solutions that lead to ongoing stability. However, while the embattled President has replaced his brother as Prime Minister in an attempt to ease political pressure, the opposition has so far refused to join an administration with the Rajapaksa family. A political solution may need to be found that finally breaks the link with the Rajapaksa’s so Sri Lanka can move forward as a nation.

Sri Lankan’s have shown that they desire legitimate change in response to this unprecedented crisis. They demand meaningful political and economic change that will allow Sri Lankans to buy basic goods and reduce poverty. The government, whether it includes the Rajapaksa’s or not, needs to listen to the people and not respond with violence by respecting their human rights and undertaking meaningful change.

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“Haqeeqi Azaadi” or “Political Invasion”?

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You call it a “Long March” or an “Azaadi March” or a “Haqeeqi Azaadi March” and lastly according to some people “Political invasion of the capital”; whatever attempt it may be, the impact of this “Long March” will not be “Short” at all. Seems like history is repeating. Yesterday, it was PTI, later it was TLP, then JUIF, PDM & now again PTI. This reminds us about a Supreme Court’s historic judgment on Faizabad Sit in by Supreme Court, which is quite relevant again in these crucial times. The historic judgment of Supreme Court on Suo moto quotes that “The leaders of the dharna intimidated, hurled threats, abused, provoked and promoted hatred. The media provided unabated coverage. Inflammatory speeches were delivered by irresponsible politicians. Some unscrupulous talk-show hosts incited and provoked citizens.” Isn’t the situation once again similar? Doesn’t it seem like history is repeating? Few analysts consider it to be a worst kind of situation.

Supreme Court writes in its judgment that “the freedom of speech and expression and of the press are fundamental right. However, these rights cannot be used to denigrate or undermine the glory of Islam, security or defence of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, or commission of or incitement to an offence.  He categorically mentions that “PEMRA Ordinance mirrors the restrictions as set out in Article 19 of the Constitution and further prohibits broadcasts which are, “likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.” So, Supreme Court has already given clear instructions that if some event is likely to disrupt peace and tranquility, media broadcasts can be prohibited.

Insiders say that we are in a dead end and this is the most crucial time of history for Pakistan, especially when the economic fate has to be decided by IMF on 25th May when Imran khan marches on Islamabad. So let’s playout the possible upcoming scenarios which political stakeholders may have to consider;

  1. Marching towards Islamabad with huge crowds is one thing but forcing a government to dissolve assemblies with this crowd is another thing. Imran Khan very well knows this is a do or die situation for his political career as well. He knows his March will only succeed if he can force an early election.
  2. Bringing larger mobs to Islamabad will only be fruitful if there is some kind of disruption by the present government or by the PTI itself. IK knows that a prolonged sit in without happenings in the red zone won’t be impactful.
  3. PTI leaders have been repeatedly convincing people including government employees, Army officers and police to bring their families in their Haqeeqi Azaadi March. The question which arises is that “Why IK doesn’t bring own family members to join the “Jihad” or “Haqeeqi Azaadi”?
  4. IMF has to take crucial decision on Pakistan’s economic fate. Without an IMF Package, a Srilanka type scenario may arise. The decision will come on the same date as of long march, on 25th May. This is a do or die situation for Pakistan’s economy. So the leaders of this March should definitely come with a futuristic economic plan and tell the masses how will they get rid of this dire economic situation.
  5. While Srinagar Highway will be full of Marchers led by the so-called Ambassador of Kashmir, a big decision is expected to come from Srinagar about Yasin Malik. Unfortunately, it is expected that his sentencing maybe announced on 25th May as well.

The government also has limited options. They are arresting leaders of PTI. They are raiding houses in their own panic mode which will further incite the situation. The removal of fuel subsidiary has become inevitable and when it happens it will be the most unpopular decision. Rising, Inflation will cut purchasing power. Finalization of IMF program has brought them to a dead end.

The dread is in the air. 25th May is around the corner. It is Crucial. It is Do or Die for Pakistan. We must fear!!

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South Asia

When Politics turns Personal; The Toxic Allegations & Accusations become a Norm

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Image source: timeofpakistan.com

There is something happening beneath this political turmoil which is NOT looking good!!

Whenever Political landscape turns into a Personal battleground, defeats become unacceptable. These past few days are a perfect case study to see that how Political elite in Pakistan has done whatever it took it to stay in power. In this power grab scenario, there could be numerous losses including the integrity of institutions. We have unfortunately entered into a very dangerous phase, where some political stakeholders have put all stakes at risk, where they have stretched their limits beyond a constitutional limit, all to gather mass support, all to stay in power and avoid defeat. Is it a threat of losing power? Is it a double game? Is it a practical hybrid war we are fighting?  Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be good. All is at stake, all is at risk and all is toxic.

As if the political temperature was not noxious enough, Shireen Mazari Saga took place. Once again, accusations, allegations and assumptions started pouring in against the state institutions. Soon after her arrest, her daughter, a lawyer herself Imaan Zainab Mazari alleged that her mother was beaten by male police officers during the arrest. But few minutes later, a video clip surfaced that showed clearly that her mother was arrested by Female Police officers in broad daylight and as per the law. Lie number 1 of the daughter stood exposed. Within moments, without any cogent evidence the lady, known for many controversies in the past targeted state institution for such an act, although the anti-corruption already had taken responsibility of her arrest.

Abuse of power can never be tolerated, regardless of who it targets or from where it emanates. This mantra is true and everyone has an equal belief on it but let’s take a deep dive to see that how politics turned dirty in this case, how blame game took place and how this entire episode was used as a tool to churn propaganda against Army leadership and Armed Forces.

1. The anti-corruption police had arrested Shireen Mazari and she herself accepted that Prime Minister and Interior minister were responsible for my arrest. But the mother daughter nexus brazenly started blaming institutions without any solid evidence. Shouldn’t there be an inquiry on this too?

2. PTI was always of the opinion that why courts were opened mid night to send IK packing while he wasn’t listening to anyone however when same court gave a verdict in favor of PTI ex minister, late night, it was celebrated and much appreciated by Shireen Mazari & IK who have been spearheading anti judicial tirade until recently. Isn’t it blatant hypocrisy? Judicial inquiry has been ordered by the Court which is a positive sign, but the serious allegations which Mazari nexus have raised must also be inquired during this newly formed judicial inquiry. Should the Judiciary not question them on hurling these baseless allegations?

3. The present government, whose Police itself arrested Shireen Mazari disowned this attempt. Attorney General displayed his ignorance about the matter in front of the court. So, somehow the government created this impression in the public eye that they are not to be blamed for the arrest of Shireen Mazari. Was it a double game? Or a deliberate effort to discredit institutions?

Pakistan is already facing serious economic downfall, political uncertainty and civil strife. PTI has also announced Long March to Islamabad on 25th May which is likely to further exacerbate already fragile political and economic instability. It has become quite evident now for achieving petty political ends, our political elite has no serious resolve to address the crisis confronting the country. Country is being deliberately pushed to limits of economic and political dead end. The political immaturity and lack of vision to handle the crisis situation is also hurting the repute of institutions amidst internal political wrangling. If political leadership doesn’t come to grips of the critical situation prevailing which is likely to aggravate further in coming days, people of Pakistan in particular and the country in general are likely to suffer unprecedented damage. Political elite must put its acts together and steer the country out of prevalent political and economic crisis by showing sagacity and political wisdom until it’s too late.

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