Issue 18

Issue XVIII: Editors Note

The last year has been a rollercoaster for people around the globe. One might even come close to calling it a fever dream of sorts, with some months bringing us respite and optimism about a possible covid-free future, while others had us wrapped up in blankets, back to hosting virtual Christmas parties. Three mega covid-waves later, we once again dip our toes into the outside world warily attempting to be the creatures we were in the pre-pandemic era. One can’t help but wonder if the third time will be the charm. Questions about what the new(est) normal has in store for humanity looms on the horizon, as time in today’s world seems to be marked by an endless loop of living between pandemics and finding periods of normalcy, however abnormal that may be. Reflected in our cover art, the 18th issue of Open axis reflects on the year that has been, and where the loop might take us in the coming months. 

To begin with, Reya Daya tracks global covid developments and vaccination trends, dwelling on the power of human adaptability and the need to learn to live alongside a virus that shows no signs of burgeoning. Sharing his thoughts on the pandemic and government messaging surrounding covid, immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath gets into conversation with Open Axis on correct policy-making and mixed messaging in times of a disease outbreak. 

On the upcoming Indian assembly elections, Biplob Kumar Das writes on the promises made to the farmers by parties contesting in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, particularly in the backdrop of a successful farmers movement. Further, Ranjini Ghosh from the Trivedi Center for Political Data analyzes the growth of social media usage in election campaigns and the implications of social media on microtargeting voters. 

Rutuparna Deshpande critically examines the homeschooling infrastructure in India and explores the consequences that homeschooling mechanisms (or lack thereof) might bring for India’s students with pandemic-induced nationwide school shutdowns. 

Reflecting on the happenings surrounding the 76th Republic Day and a resplendent parade in the capital, Ujjwala Shankar breaks down the consequences of extinguishing the eternal Amar Jawan Jyoti. Meanwhile, Adit Shankar examines India’s relationship with its constitution, a document perceived by many to be increasingly under threat. When a script for a movie surrounding a gay ex-army officer was rejected by the Defence Ministry, a nationwide uproar emerged on social media platforms. Shree Bhattacharyya reflects on this controversial rejection while exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in the Indian Army. 

Bharatnatyam dancer, performer, and instructor Justin Mcarthy writes on the legacy left behind by the late Kathak legend Birju Maharaj. In global news, Shauryavardhan Sharma dives deep into the future of India-China relations and factors that may shape the direction of future ties. 

Finally, Founding Editor of The Wire and popular economic and political writer, M.K. Venu shares his thoughts on the latest Union Budget and the government’s big push to public investment in infrastructure. To wrap up the issue, we present a collection of some of our favorite memes on the budget. 

Through the diverse topics presented in this issue, which make up a small but significant part of today’s new normal, we hope our readers find some incentive to step out into the world again and embrace all the changes the new world brings to us. 

–Jaidev Pant, Lakshya Sharma, Maahira Jain

Issue 18

What Constitutes a Constitution?

“India requires a new constitution…I firmly believe that so many nations have rewritten their Constitutions whenever they felt it necessary. They have got new Constitutions. Now, there is a need in this country to pursue a new Constitution of India. Our slogan will be ‘Naya Soch, Nayi Disha, Naya Samvidhan (new thinking, new direction, and new Constitution).’” A mere week after India’s 72nd anniversary of adopting the Constitution, this proclamation by Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekhar Rao seems both provocative and confusing. KCR buttresses his claim by stating that “people’s expectations haven’t been met” in the past 75 years, which invalidates the utility of the present constitution. But how would a new constitution help in meeting those expectations? Is it even the point of a constitution to meet “people’s expectations?” Further, what is the relationship between a constitution and political outcomes?

The comments seem slightly more understandable in the context of KCR’s grievance against the centre, as it constantly overlooks and overrides the constitutional powers mandated to state governments. Yet, that grievance catapults to a desire for “newness” as a sort of panacea: a new constitution will solve everything that plagues the country, much like a project of remodelling Lutyens’ Delhi becomes the key to national rejuvenation. Replicating both the current dispensation’s logic of needlessly introducing novelty and its penchant for alliterative sloganeering, KCR seems to be speaking in the language of the very central government he seeks to oppose.

KCR’s call-to-arms elicited condemnation from across the political arena. Curiously, leading the charge is BJP MP from Telangana, Bandi Sanjay Kumar. In a series of tweets criticising the Chief Minister’s “abusive” attitude towards the Prime Minister and the constitution, Kumar ends with: “BJP abides by Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s Constitution and will never allow it to become vulnerable to the machinations of megalomaniacs like KCR.” One might concede sincerity to Kumar’s opposition to “megalomaniacs like KCR;” but leaving the Constitution vulnerable to the machinations of other kinds of megalomaniacs must certainly be fair game for Kumar.

What with the overt violations of legal procedure and convention, the authoritarian capture of otherwise autonomous institutions, like the Election Commission, military, and even the judiciary, along with a proliferation of hate-speech and atrocities against religious minorities and oppressed groups across the country over the past seven years. It is difficult to believe, then, that the BJP abides, in any measure, by “Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s Constitution,” as it unabashedly flouts the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity installed within our Preamble. Instead, Kumar’s comments stem not from a commitment to constitutional morality, but a treatment of the constitution as a sacred relic rather than a readable document, whose spirit might founder some of the foundational assumptions behind Kumar’s own political ideology.

Both KCR and Kumar, then, seem to leave us with two models of thinking about the constitution: it is either treated as a means to an end—the achievement of particular political and economic outcomes that the current document has failed to ensure—or defended as an object of almost religious reverence, ironically failing to take its actual text seriously. Either a tool, or a sacrament. But are there other ways of thinking about the constitution, other forms of envisioning our relationship to it as citizens? To hark back to an earlier set of questions, what is the purpose of a constitution? Can we ‘defend’ the constitution without worshipping it or resisting suggestions of change?

Without necessarily answering these questions in any direct manner, I’d like to turn attention to a phrase that I just used: constitutional morality. This seemingly self-explanatory term—a moral commitment to the constitution, or the morality enshrined within it—appears as an object of critical inquiry in various discourses of constitutionality. The most relevant instance of the phrase comes from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s citation of the classicist George Grote, in his speech ‘The Draft Constitution,’ delivered on 4 November 1948: “By constitutional morality, Grote meant… a paramount reverence for the forms of the constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms…”

It is difficult to do justice to the entire complex of ideas that this abbreviated sentence presents, but what is particularly interesting is the repeated use of the term ‘form.’ For Grote, reverence is enacted not simply to the constitution but its forms. However bitterly opposed different political factions may be, they must share a belief in the sacredness of the form of the constitution. This belief becomes constitutional morality itself.

It is the form of the constitution, then, and not just the sum of laws contained within it—it’s content—that should gain prominence in our evaluation of it. The form of the constitution doesn’t merely refer to the framing of a legal document; it bleeds into a socio-political and intellectual space, and the conditions on which the functioning of that space is premised. Thus, we might disagree about the validity of certain laws—the current debates on marital rape, or the infamous section-377, repealed shamefully recently, bear testament to the existence of reprehensible legal statutes—or be disillusioned by the dissonance between the vision of the constitution and the lack of its actualisation. But to truly respect the constitution is not to defer to a specific set of rules or axioms; it is to consider seriously the process of encountering difference, listening to dissenting voices, and respecting the dignity of each individual that undergirds its very composition: what forms a constitution.
Yet, as we collectively acquiesce to a project of annihilating difference, where democracy is preserved merely as a catalyst for demagoguery, we are moving further away from this vision of constitutional morality, a vision that Pratap Bhanu Mehta expands upon in his lecture titled ‘What is constitutional morality?’: “In the face of difference, the only point of unanimity that one can seek is over an appropriately designed adjudicative process…What the parties have to agree to, as Ambedkar recognizes over and over, is an allegiance to a constitutional form, not an allegiance to a particular substance.” It is precisely this ‘adjudicative process’ whose downfall we witness today in the relentless erosion of institutional authority. Far more dangerous, however, is the ruling dispensation’s singular allegiance to its own ideological substance that threatens to deform the constitution to its very core.

Adit Shankar is a first-year masters student of English at Ashoka University. His writing has previously appeared in Scroll, and he is interested in the politics and literature of South Asia.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

On the Fence: The Sino-Indian Standoff Continues

On 12th  January 2022 , commanders of the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army of China met for the 14th round of Corps Commander Level talks with the aim being “resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western Sector.” The first round of talks between the respective division level commanders of both armies was held on 18th June 2020, following violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan valley. This clash represented the most deadly outbreak of violence between the two nations in nearly 50 years,  resulting in 20 casualties on the Indian side, and an indeterminate number of casualties on the Chinese side. Since this flare up of violence, both sides have ramped up military presence across the entire length of the Sino-Indian border, and the question of how to de-escalate and chart a response going forward has been on the minds of multiple stakeholders. 

After 14 rounds of official talks at the military, diplomatic and political levels, the question of the future of Sino-Indian relations still remains standing. The heart of the issue goes back to the boundary shared between the nation. The boundary question is however, very complex.  “The alignment of the LAC has never been agreed upon, nor has it been delineated or demarcated. Remote and uninhabitable, the contested territory has no significant natural resources or population centers. The terrain varies from dry and desolate in the Western sector to hilly and dense in the Eastern sector.” Notions of history, culture, and civilization differences present their own set of problems that have to be considered. This is not to say that concentrated efforts to resolve the crisis haven’t been made, or de-escalation hasn’t happened before. The 2005 agreement signed between the two governments, marked a step forward by recognising that “the boundary settlement must be final, covering all sectors of the India-China boundary.”

At the same time, this ongoing crisis represents a new turn. Simply put, the repeated talks have failed because while either side does not want further violence, each side also differs in how exactly they see de-escalation and the terms of resolving the larger border issues. A key demand for the Indian side as a precursor to the normalization of the relationship between the two nations has been the “complete withdrawal from all the friction points and status-quo until restored as it existed before May 2020.”

This stated aim has not been achieved so far and seems unlikely to be reached for the simple reason that it is not in China’s interest to withdraw and let the issue quietly die down.  China’s new strategy at the border is a mix of strategies that have been successfully used in other flashpoints. It is a mixture of not only salami-slicing tactics, but also gray zone warfare, both working to China’s benefit.

Gray zone warfare often relies on deniability, remaining below an adversary’s response threshold, and achieving a cumulative effect through seemingly minor actions.” One can see instances of this approach all across the current crisis. One major area is the effort to solve each hotspot, or area of tension on its own, as a piecemeal approach with the aim of de-linking certain hotspots from a larger political settlement of the issues. The history of the various talks is littered with such examples. Of the various flashpoints, it was during the 9th round of talks that troops were disengaged from the Pangong Tso lake area, from the Gogra region during the 12th round of talks, and the focus of the failed 14th round of talks was the Hot Springs area in Eastern Ladakh.  Experts and news media have pointed out that certain areas are no longer on the table for even the base process of ‘disengagement’. For example, the ongoing standoff in the Depsang and Demchok in Eastern Ladakh. While the Indian side has pushed for resolution here, the issues at play, i.e., denial of patrolling routes of the Indian army by the Chinese have been delinked and cast as ‘legacy issues’. Such an approach, however, masks the fact that the Chinese side has successfully used the 2020 crisis to block access of the Indian side to areas it historically used to patrol in. Further, for the Indian side to recast ongoing flashpoints as ‘legacy issues’ that cannot be talked about even for ‘disengagement,’ shows that the onus of escalation firmly lies on the Indian side, and secondly, gray zone warfare is indeed in effect.

China has also sought to recast the border issue in terms of sovereignty. Statements such as those made in regard to Arunachal Pradesh, seem to confirm that the aim of the Chinese side is indeed to split up the boundary question into sector-wise chunks, and not deal with it as a political whole, going back from what was previously agreed upon, such as the 2005 agreement. As Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor points out “unlike past confrontations and face-offs, the framing of the crisis by China as a sovereignty dispute — rather than as a border dispute which would be solved by give and take — makes it harder to settle.”

The other Chinese strategy that dovetails perfectly with the advent of gray zone warfare is that of putting the onus of escalation on the Indian side. Chinese efforts such as occupying territory, building infrastructure, aggressive patrolling, disputing agreed-upon boundaries, or denying patrolling routes portray tightly controlled moves designed to put the serious onus of escalation on the other side while quietly accruing the benefits of this carefully scripted brinkmanship. The question for the Indian side is whether it can bear the costs of a steady level of escalation by the Chinese without resorting to any new levels of violence. 

The costs of managing and operating the armed forces in brutal and inhospitable conditions, against a hostile neighbor, are happening during a time when the Indian Military is considering reforming its force structure to a Joint Theater Command System. This move, while argued by many as necessary, especially in light of China’s own military reforms, has its own set of myriad challenges and delays for policy-makers. Another area of concern is the issue of budgetary allocation for the Armed Forces. While the 2022-23 allocation of Rs 5.25 Lakh Crore represents “a 9.8% higher [increase] over the Budget estimates of last year” it “masks the challenge of the availability of resources … this increase is barely keeping up with the inflation and the demands of the three services”. More importantly, as pointed out by General Naravane, the ultimate solution to the problem lies at the political level. However, considering the increasingly strained personal relationship between Modi and Xi, one is unsure of the political vision of Indian policy makers. It is important to point out that while the Indian side as a response to Chinese aggression has “initiated a build-up of troops and weaponry along the border”, the more important question is till what point  such an aggressive posture is sustainable. 

In conclusion, one definitely hopes for the introduction of new confidence building measures, based on an approach that recognizes changed political and ground realities, while working together to solve long standing border issues between these two Asian giants in the spirit of mutual cooperation. What is more likely, and is disturbingly seen on the ground, is the fact that the relationship going forward between the two countries will depend on whichever of the two sides blinks first.

Shauryavardhan Sharma is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University. He graduated with a degree in History and International Relations, and is currently pursuing a Research Thesis on India’s Nuclear Programme. His interests lie in the field of Security Studies, and the analysis of India’s foreign policy.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

Call of Duty: A Surgical Strike on the Discrimination in the Indian Army

Celebrating 75 years of Independence, the Beating Retreat marked the end of this year’s Republic Day through a mesmerising display of lights, history, and inspiring tunes. Each year, the Beating Retreat showcases the grit and strength of the Indian Armed Forces, the continuation of tradition, and acts as a record of history. However, recognising how far we have come also makes one wonder how far we have yet to go. 

In 2018, the government of India decriminalized section 377 of the Indian Constitution. This marked a historic moment in the history of LGBTQ+ rights in India. In the four years since, the Indian Armed Forces have not explicitly recognised the ripple effects of the judicial move, nor have they extended any visible hand to include the community into their forces. In January 2022, the Ministry of Defence rejected a script for a film, directed by Onir, that told the true story of a gay ex-Army officer. The true story affirms that people from the LGBTQ+ community are present in the Indian Armed Forces — however, the institution staunchly refuses to acknowledge them. In 2019, a statement stressed that the Indian Armed Forces were not yet “westernised” and were still quite “conservative.” While it is true that the Indian social and cultural landscape is different from the west – and it may not be fair to compare the two – nonetheless, perhaps the west should be viewed as a society to take note of, rather than one that is unfathomable for India. Moreover, countries in the west are not the only examples. Each country has its shortcomings concerning unequivocal acceptance and inclusion. However, Nepal, the Philippines, and Israel are a few examples of countries that accept service in the military regardless of one’s sexual orientation. 

In the Indian Armed Forces, though they can not punish those in the Army for their sexuality, they can punish them for carrying out certain sexual acts. The Army Act of 1950, section 46(a) states that any “disgraceful” conduct of an “unnatural” kind may lead to punishment. The phrasing of this act is vague, but can be imposed on officers depending on whether those in authority view the encounters and relationships between LGBTQ+ individuals as “unnatural.” The LGBTQ+ community is often ignored and effaced from both within the forces, and from those who wish to serve their country. The first crucial step is that the Armed Forces recognize the existence of the community, after which the system and the state have to collectively work to embrace them into the force. 

The discourse around gender and sexuality has especially been prominent in the past few decades — as laws are modified, views are changing, and people are aiming to be more accepting. The attitude of the Indian Armed Forces towards women differs slightly from their attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community. Women are proudly recognised, and when one visits the official page of the Indian Army, the radiant smiles of five women officers greet them under a section titled ‘Our Ethos’. In February 2020, the Supreme Court granted Permanent Commission (PC) to women officers, irrespective of their number of years of service. Previously, to argue against PC, the government had used excuses such as “motherhood”, “child-care”, and “biological requirements.” In September 2021, the Supreme Court declared that women were now allowed to appear for the National Defence Academy (NDA) exam, and nearly a third of the 2021 exam applicants were women. 

After the landmark decision was taken, only 19 women cadets were inducted into the NDA, and the Centre justified it by stating that they did not have the necessary infrastructure, and they would be ready by May 2022. However, in January 2022, the Supreme Court had to demand the Union Government to explain its reasons behind limiting the intake of women cadets in the NDA to 19 again – even after their assurance the previous year that they would be ready. 

Though the Supreme Court is taking measures to include women in the Indian Armed Forces, the decisions are either long-overdue or are not properly reinforced by the government. On 1st February 2022, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated that the induction of women fighter pilots was now a permanent scheme. However, despite its many reforms to include more women, the government has also stated that women are “physiologically weaker”, and has argued that women should not be put in commanding roles due to the “male troops not being mentally schooled to accept them”. While new policies and judicial moves for the inclusion of women are welcome, they must be accompanied by a shift in mindsets. Women in the Indian Armed Forces continue to prove themselves as redoubtable members, and making assumptions about their capability and assuming that those in service will not accept them is limiting the scope of what the Indian Armed Forces can achieve.

For decades, The Indian Armed Forces have remained a formidable and inspiring presence. With each march at the Beating Retreat, one can feel the echoes of generations of people who have selflessly served their country and continue to do so. However, among the assemblage of people who serve the country, there lie those who are grappling with their sexuality and are fighting to be recognised regardless of their gender. Perhaps next year, or the years after that, one can continue to look upon the Indian Armed Forces and be irrevocably proud, as they have every year, while simultaneously being comforted with the knowledge that among its rank are people whose sexuality is recognised, whose gender is empowered, and first and foremost are individuals who are serving free of discrimination and prejudice. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 18

Morphing a Monument

On 21st January 2022, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, the flame that had been burning at the India Gate for the past fifty years, was ‘merged’ with the flame at the National War Memorial. The Jyoti had been established in 1972 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to commemorate the soldiers who had lost their lives in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The decision was met with mixed reactions from the public. 

Among those who lauded the Central Government, there seemed to be a broad consensus about the legitimacy of such an action — that the government had carried out a long overdue ritual. After the government’s announcement, a barrage of social-media users felt the need to incessantly emphasise the semantic difference between “merging” the flame and “extinguishing” it. If the flames had indeed been ‘merged’, then there would have been two flames burning in the capital right now. However, the government asserts that this is not feasible as “maintenance of two flames would have been difficult.” One might argue that a new parliament building worth Rs 13,000 crore might require much more maintenance than a single additional flame. But logic seems incongruous with the current political environment.

Another popular justification for this action seems to stem from the fact that the India Gate is a colonial monument. “It may have been intended as a tribute to hundreds of India’s bravest who fought for the British, but it is also a monument to British immorality,” noted prime time television journalist, Rahul Shivshankar in an article for The Times Of India. The ghost of colonial injustices, looming over the India Gate, has suddenly become so overpowering that a monument dedicated to those who bore the brunt of those very injustices has lost its significance. This discomfort with our colonial past is not just flawed, but also selective; colonial DNA flows through the veins of every single government institution of present-day India, the most glaring example of all being the Indian Military. The Beating Retreat is definitely not an ‘inherently Indian’ concept, yet it is a tradition we have grown to associate with the Indian Republic.

However, the “merger” of the flames was also criticised in equal measure. A wide section of critics, including army veterans and opposition party members, lamented the loss of an iconic symbol. Some also noted that the eternal flame is no longer eternal, suggesting that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is putting the immortality of age-old conventions at stake here. The problem with such a discourse lies with how heavily rooted in nostalgia it is, thereby implying that change is the crime of which the BJP is guilty. It also gives way to other misplaced criticisms. An example of this would be a tweet by Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha, who voiced a sentiment echoed by multiple other critics. “It is understandable that the present regime may not have a sense of attachment or belonging with the ‘glories of the past’…” he tweeted. This is not quite the case. In fact, the BJP is deeply invested in the past. It is for this reason that their ideological machinery paints an elaborate picture of important historical events, which increases the significance of Hindutva icons, like Vir Savarkar. Further, the newly established hologram of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose at Rajpath shows how the BJP can effortlessly weave someone like Bose into the fabric of Hindutva. Renowned historian Rama Chandra Guha, during a conversation with The Indian Express, observed, “ [Bose] detested the Hindu Mahasabha and would have detested the RSS.”  While this prediction may or may not be true, what is truly petrifying is that it doesn’t really matter. The BJP’s powers of hypnosis are so strong that its supporters blindly buy its lies, without feeling the need to question its foundations. On top of this, rooting the criticism of the government’s recent ideologically-driven exercise in nostalgia only trivialises the magnitude of the BJP’s shrewd political machinations. 

The displacement of the Amar Jawan Jyoti and the inauguration of Netaji’s Hologram, among other events of “Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,” don’t merely affect our memory of the past, but also colour our idea of the present with saffron hues. It makes us believe that under the current regime, India is transitioning into a new epoch. Moreover, by carrying out such “historic events,” the BJP claims that it is doing what the Congress couldn’t do in over seventy years: settling the scores of history by reviving past heroes. But in turn, they successfully project Narendra Modi and his deputies as the ‘real’ heroes. 

Ujjwala Shankar is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She likes to write about Politics, Economics, and Literature. In her free time, she loves watching films and hopes to become a film critic someday.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).