October 8, 2018 @ 2:00 am

8 OCTOBER 2018

 Oldest friends

India needs to stand firm on its deep engagement with Russia in coming months

India-Russia summits have traditionally been short on time and ceremony and big on productivity. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 22-hour visit to Delhi last week was no exception. On Friday, the two countries announced a number of agreements, including a $5.43 billion S-400 Triumf missile system deal, a space cooperation arrangement to put an Indian in space, and an action plan for a new nuclear plant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Putin also addressed abusiness summit, in an attempt to diversify ties and increase bilateral trade, currently below $10 billion. Much of the fresh momentum in bilateral engagement will come from the energy sector. Though the two sides didn’t announce an agreement between ONGC Videsh and Gazprom as expected, several billions of dollars worth of investment and energy deals are in the pipeline. Significantly, the agreements discussed during Mr. Putin’s visit have geopolitical implications. The signing of the S-400 air defence system deal, for instance, is of far greater consequence than its size. Itdenotes India’s desire to deepen defence cooperation with Russia; also that it is prepared to do this despite U.S. warnings that the deal could attract sanctions. That this deal comes just a month after India signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) for better interoperability with the U.S. military is a sign that India will not be forced or even persuaded into putting all its eggs in one strategic basket.

New Delhi’s assertion of “strategic autonomy” and desire for multipolarity will be seriously tested in the coming months. For one, it chose to sign the S-400 deal, but resisted concluding other major defence deals with Russia on helicopters, stealth frigates and assault rifles, which Moscow will no doubt push for. More defence deals with Russia will make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to give India a waiver from sanctions under CAATSA, its legislation aimed at curtailing defence and energy dealings with Russia, Iran and North Korea. Washington has already reacted to the S-400 deal, making it clear that any waiver will not be on a “country” basis, but on a “transaction-by-transaction” basisIn any case, accepting a waiver will implicitly commit India to reducing its intake of Russian military hardware. Both on CAATSA and on the U.S.’s proposed sanctions on Iran that go into force on November 4, India will need to make some tough decisions. It is one thing to reinforce long-standing and close friendships as Mr. Modi did during his annual summit with the Russian President this month, and with the Iranian President earlier this year, or with the U.S. President last year – the situation can be much more complex when friends expect you to choose between them.

Too easily offended 

The Konark temple case shows some penal provisions are handy tools of harassment

The Supreme Court’s observations, while denying bail to defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, to the effect that he incited religious feelings in a video posted on social media, were out of place in what was a bail hearing. Such endorsement by the Court, which observed that Mr. Iyer-Mitra would be “safer in jail”, in response to his counsel’s plea that he feared for his life, was less than appropriate. Sending someone to the “safety” of a prison is no answer to questions raised by a prosecution under stringent laws that involve restrictions on free speech on grounds of maintaining public order and tranquillity. In a video post against the backdrop of the Konark temple, Mr. Iyer-Mitra had made some comments that were clearly satirical in nature. While it is entirely possible that his remarks offended some people, it is laughable to assume his intent was to sow discord or create religious enmity. The State police contended otherwise, charging him with outraging or wounding religious feelings and, quite mystifyingly, alleging that his remarks were directed against the “Odiya people”. On cue, the Odisha Assembly is now probing whether his satirical jokes constitute a breach of privilege of the House.Mr. Iyer-Mitra’s arrest in New Delhi by a police team from Odisha for his comments and some other tweets is another instance of the rampant misuse of two sections of the Indian Penal Code – 153A and 295A – on the charges of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion. However, a magistrate denied the police permission to take him to Odisha on transit remand, and instead granted him limited bail until September 28 on the condition that he join the investigation by that date. His petition for regular bail has now been rejected by the Supreme Court.

The entire episode flags a larger concern: provisions that ought to be invoked only under serious circumstances – a grave threat to public order and tranquillity, for instance, or, in the case of Section 295A, when a purported insult to religion has been done with malicious and deliberate intent – are being misused in a routine manner. When the onus is on the prosecution to show there was criminal intent either to provoke disharmony or deliberately offend religious sensibilities, it is simply wrong to invoke these sections for everything that someone finds objectionable. Irreverence or even bad taste is not a crime. A mere response suffices; the use of prosecution and arrest are unjustifiable. Such an attitude will only make for an intolerant society consisting of easily offended individuals. In a mature democracy, the casual resort to criminal prosecution for perceived insults to either a religion or a class of society ought to be actively discouraged. In fact, the case must serve as yet another prompt to begin the process of reading down Sections 153A and 295A.

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