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Indian Press ( 2 Jan 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Indian Press On Religious Conversion Bills, Hate As an Ideology and Covid Vaccine: New Age Islam's Selection, 2 January 2021

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

2 January 2021

• Unlawful Religious Conversion Bills – Part 1

By Saroj Chadha

• When Hate Is Also An Ideology

By Kaleeswaram Raj

• How Special Marriage Act Is Condemning Interfaith Couples To Up-Style Anti-Conversion Laws

By Anushree Jairath

• A ‘New’ India Can’t Be Built By Abandoning The Core Values Of Our Founding Fathers

By Rajdeep Sardesai

• Warping A Great Faith: Both ‘Hard’ And ‘Soft’ Hindutva Are Expedient Uses Of Religion For Political Gains

By Pavan K Varma

• Iran’s Look East Policy May Force Us Rethink

By Yogesh Gupta

• Covid Vaccine Marks Milestone In Science

By Dinesh C Sharma


Unlawful Religious Conversion Bills – Part 1

By Saroj Chadha

January 1, 2021

UP government has instituted a bill titled ‘Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020’ in the state. The title of the bill clearly relates to unlawful conversions which means that any willing religious conversions by adults are excluded. The bill also does not target any religion in particular as it is applicable for all religious conversions. Madhya Pradesh government too has passed a similar bill recently. A few other states too are likely to bring similar legislation in the near future. As expected, there is a lot of hue and cry over these bills from some quarters in the country. The question is do India and Indians need such a bill? Perhaps it may be prudent to clarify and understand some key issues involved before one can answer this question.

It is no secret that Christianity and Islam religions believe in conversions. Over centuries they have converted people from other faiths in all parts of the worlds. History is replete with instances where forced mass conversions were carried out at the point of sword, by terrorizing or by levying taxes. The fact that both these religions believe that the only God is their God and his teachings are contained in their respective holy books. Is it any wonder that despite being younger to Hinduism by thousands of years, the world today has around 84 Christian and 50 Islamic majority nations?

As opposed to such beliefs in Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has never resorted to conversions as it believes that one can only be born a Hindu. It also believes in co-existence as it does not see itself as the only religion. Therefore, it is not surprising that India and Nepal are the only two Hindu majority nations in the world. Mauritius, which has a majority Hindu population is made up of migrant from India who settled there starting from middle of nineteenth century. Thus, it may be logical to assume that the onus of protecting Hindu religion and culture rests with India by default.

While most western nations have been very liberal and tolerant towards other religions in recent times, the same cannot be said of Islamic nations who continue to impose all kinds of restrictions on people of other faiths. But today most western nations have realised that this freedom, that they offered to migrants of other faiths, has been misused and is now posing all kinds of challenges to their own culture and beliefs. Many have now started taking corrective measures to curb such misuse.

Both Islam and Christianity are imports in India. They have been allowed to flourish in the country because of the spirit of coexistence and tolerance that is inherent to Hindu religion. Most of the conversions that occurred over centuries from within the Hindu population were either forced or out of fear since India was under Mughal rule and colonial subjugation by European nations for nearly ten centuries. But today India has no such limitations and instead is a master of its own destiny. Therefore, while continuing to follow its coexistence and tolerant policies in spirit and word, by no stretch of imagination can it continue to be a fertile land for any nefarious designs of other religions. The nation will, and it must, take steps to safeguard its own religion and culture.

In recent times the methodologies for conversion by Christianity and Islam have changed. Christianity mainly converts through inducements and promises of access to a better quality of life to the less privileged sections of our society in different parts through well planned programs conducted by their network of Churches and missionaries. Free rations, education and medical facilities are some of the common inducements. They specialize in focusing on remote and less accessible areas by targeting Dalits, Tribal and Adivasi population. Today there are four Indian states in North East where Christians are in majority. The funding is received from Vatican, Christian philanthropic and non-profit organisations apart from some governments in western world, both openly and covertly. Funding has been perhaps the least of their problem.

Islam on the other hands relies more on conversions through persuasion that at times turns to brain washing. The targets are mainly individuals or in small groups. Islam focuses on strengthening the identity of Muslims, both locals and migrants, to use them in service of Islam. They are encouraged to consider themselves as part of a global Muslim nation or fraternity. They are advised to act as devout Muslims, to build Muslim institutions such as mosques, madrassas and charity organizations with a view to serve political interests of Muslims worldwide and to proselytize. Perhaps this also explains why Muslim refugees invariably head to non-Muslim nations rather than Islamic countries. Once again there appears to be no shortage of funds that come mainly from Middle East Islamic nations. These funds are used to build mosques and madrassas to spread the message of Islam.

Muslim are charged with the duty of summoning non-Muslims to their faith. It is estimated that in England, France and Spain alone about twenty-five thousand Christians convert to Islam every year. For USA the figure is about twenty thousand. Unfortunately, there is no reliable data available on conversions in India. While these figures by themselves may not be very alarming, what is worrisome is when a small percentage of such converts turn fanatics. The presence of such converts from western nations and India in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other places is testimony to this fact.

As already stated at the beginning there is no problem with lawful religious conversions for adults. The problem lies with forced or unlawful religious conversions or if children are targeted. The bills under discussion are applicable for only unlawful conversions. The bills are not religion specific and provide protection against unlawful conversion to people from all religions. To that extent the bills are not discriminatory and respect all religions equally.

Do the bills in question curtail the fundamental rights of any citizen? It is obvious they do not since willing conversions are not included. Any law that protects the citizens from an unlawful activity has to be a good law and cannot be seen as an infringement of their fundamental rights. Prevention of crime is a responsibility of the state and therefore it is duty bound to enact laws to that effect. Any forced, deceitful or inducement based religious conversion has to be seen as unlawful and therefore it has to be classified as a crime.

(To be continued)


When Hate Is Also An Ideology

By Kaleeswaram Raj

02nd January 2021

The Supreme Court, in an unprecedented move, interdicted Sudarshan television channel from telecasting a programme called ‘Bindas Bol - UPSC Jihad’. Many felt that the telecast was targeted against a particular religious community. A Bench led by Justice Chandrachud is dealing with the legal and constitutional aspects of ‘hate speech’ in the media at large. The task before the court is to draw the subtle yet important distinction between free speech and hate speech.

British Parliamentarian Bhikhu Parekh said that “(hate speech) lowers the tone of public debate, coarsens the society’s moral sensibility and weakens the culture of mutual respect”. He explained that it “violates the dignity of the target group by stigmatising them, denying their capacity to live as responsible members of the society”. The Indian Supreme Court cautioned about the vices of hate speech in Baburao Patel’s case (1980) and the Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan case (2014).

Statutes against hate speech are not uncommon in liberal democracies. Section 14 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code in Canada prohibits publications that instigate hatred. India does not have a separate law on hate speech, although one can trace facets of it in different enactments including the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Rule 6 of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, prohibits programmes that offend “good taste or decency” or contain matters “contemptuous of religious groups” or promoting “communal attitudes”.

Also there are other variants of hate speech enumerated in the rule, though the phrase ‘hate speech’ is not used. Section 5 of the Cable Television Act speaks about programme code, which, if violated, can invite punishment as provided under Section 16 of the Act.Hate is more than an emotion or state of mind. It is an ideology. It is not limited to a few television shows or newspaper pieces. It is a contagious virus in the polity. It is antithetical to the spirit of the Constitution.

The Constituent Assembly debates are published by the Lok Sabha secretariat in huge volumes in a commendable venture. In the debates, along with enormous erudition and expertise of the members, one finds a great deal of mutual tolerance and understanding. They respected one another with a great sense of deliberative ethics. They built up an edifice for the nation through conversation. The Constitution, in a way, is this conversation crystallised.

No wonder, therefore, that we have a Preamble in the fundamental law that talks not only about justice, liberty and equality but also about fraternity. The Preamble negates hate as an ideology and puts forward its own design for the nation in the making. The assertions of the nation resound in Part III of the Constitution, dealing with fundamental rights. Part IV sets out the   directive principles, which are the people’s aspirations.

These principles reflect the nation’s dreams—ranging from gender equality to the community’s control over resources. Article 51A(e) in Part IV A, which was incorporated later, talks about the duty to promote harmony and the spirit of “common brotherhood” across “religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities”. Article 51A(h) stresses on “scientific temper and humanism”.Rhetoric on fraternity does not ensure its practice. The problem, however, is that we lose even the rhetoric. When fraternity is lost not merely in the newsrooms, but even in the legal and political landscape, there is betrayal of the Constitution.

The statutes based on hate do not pass the constitutional muster even at a philosophical level. The state cannot punish the citizens for their individual choices, unless those harm the society. Laws cannot rest on imaginary postulates for punishing the citizen. There is enough empirical data from Uttar Pradesh to reveal the draconian character of the law on ‘love jihad’. Victims are the best judges of the law. Many innocuous people demonstrated the inherent danger of such laws. The provisions are harsh and divisive.

They reflect the state’s encroachment into forbidden zones of citizen’s privacy. They interfere with the fundamental human instinct for intimacy and relationships.But these legislations do not emerge spontaneously. They happen in an enabling political climate. Hate laws that happened in certain states may not happen everywhere, at least for the time being. Law is politics with a legal terminology. Politics of hate cannot understand the quintessential relation between the nation, its people and the Constitution.

Instances of political murder or vigilantism in the country could be the manifestation of the detestation to which a section of the media also contributed. Physical and cyber threats against citizens for what they are or what they believe in have their origin in the political factories that manufacture and distribute hate. While conventional democracy rests on majoritarianism, constitutional democracy respects the minorities. The politics that does not honour the smaller lots cannot generally honour the citizens. As the writer Ayn Rand said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.”

This is why a state with majoritarian impulses motivated by the doctrine of abhorrence hooks the individuals by invoking its apparatus, ranging from police to prison. A stringent state could annihilate the individual’s claim for dignity in the most heinous way. But India can no longer afford a gruesome state as manifested during the Emergency. We need to reread the country’s Constitution as a condition for survival. The Constitution may not be eternal, but its values are.


How Special Marriage Act Is Condemning Interfaith Couples To UP-Style Anti-Conversion Laws

By Anushree Jairath

29 December, 2020

Your plea is that this is a violation of the privacy of the couples. But imagine if children run away to get married, how would the parents know about the whereabouts of their children? If [a] wife runs away, how would the husband come to know?” Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde said this year, in response to a PIL challenging the 30-day notice period of the Special Marriage Act of 1954.

The Special Marriage Act is a civil law enacted in 1954 that allows the solemnisation of marriages between any two individuals without religious customs, rituals, or ceremonial requirements. More importantly, the Special Marriage Act critically creates provisions for the marriage of interfaith couples without religious conversions — a requirement for marriages under personal laws such as the Hindu or the Muslim marriage acts. There exist some critical fundamental differences between civil marriages under the Special Marriage Act when compared to marriages under personal laws. These provisions are most problematic for couples who wish to marry against the wishes of their families.

Difference between marriage under Special Marriage Act and personal laws

The first difference and a critical requirement under the Special Marriage Act is the 30-day notice period. Under this, applications are usually accepted at the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s (SDM) office, or with a marriage officer located in the district where one of the individuals reside. After checking the application, a notice is sent to the couple’s permanent address (an address most young people share with their parents and families), along with being displayed at the SDM’s notice board.

Many couples who elope prefer to marry outside of their local jurisdiction to avoid familial pressure, and although provisions allowing this do exist, notices are still sent to the marriage officer of the local district. Such displays have also made couples (especially interfaith couples) a target of familial and societal harassment from vigilante groups. Such a clause is absent if one plans to marry under personal law, thus the existence of it under the Special Marriage Act is discriminatory and violates the right to equality (Article 14).

Second, marriage under the Special Marriage Act requires an extra witness – three, instead of two in the case of marriage registration under personal laws. Witnesses play an important role under the Act, as they can be called to testify in case any objections are raised during the 30-day notice period. This extra responsibility might make one think twice before agreeing to be a witness, adding an extra layer of complexity in the overall process.

Despite these issues, couples who choose to use the Special Marriage Act find that there is a complete lack of transparency around the process. In addition, many states such as Delhi have made the registration process completely online, which accentuates issues of access, since this requires basic legal/computer literacy and facilities such as internet services. A lack of this can result in corruption and potential harassment by middlemen, especially in the case of interfaith couples.

On surveillance and deterrence

The 30-day notice period, the requirement for an extra witness, and the need to inform families are elements that are absent under personal laws. Marriages under personal laws are possible with immediate effect without parents’ knowledge or permission. Evidently, systematic biases exist for couples who wish to marry under the Special Marriage Act.

Lawmakers’ perspective towards such unjust requirements also speaks volumes about how the Special Marriage Act is perceived. Justice Bobde’s response to the 30-day notice period, quoted at the beginning, highlights the multiplicity of identities that lawmakers hold — here, as parent and judge.

Additionally, by referring to consenting adults as ‘children’ and inviting objections under the Special Marriage Act, lawmakers like Justice Bobde cease to see young people as decision-makers of their own lives. For many women, marrying a partner of their choice is an attempt to get out of an abusive familial life. In this situation, the notice defeats the right to choose one’s partner by informing and inviting objections from the family, as well as the larger society.

By justifying such clauses and installing checks at every step of the Special Marriage Act, the monitoring of young people’s lives by parents is now getting validity in the law through arguments that prioritise surveillance over an individual’s privacy. The Puttaswamy judgment declared privacy as a constitutionally protected right, reiterating that “personal choices governing a way of life are intrinsic to privacy and that the pursuit of happiness is founded upon autonomy and dignity.”

However, this right is regularly flouted and put aside when it comes to surveillance of the state over its citizens.

Intersection of Special Marriage Act and ‘Love Jihad’

The Uttar Pradesh government has already cleared a law against forceful religious conversions. The law, however, is now being used to target consenting interfaith couples, including those whose parents’ agree to the marriage. Other states, such as Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, are now contemplating laws on ‘Love Jihad’ or ‘anti-conversion’, which use the garb of forced conversions to target inter-faith marriages and require individuals to take special permissions if they wish to convert their religion in order to marry under personal laws. Contrary to the premise of the Special Marriage Act that accepts the existence of interfaith relationships, the current ‘Love Jihad’ laws create scenarios that suggest that every case of inter-faith marriage is actually a case of forced conversion.

Keeping in mind the complexities of the Special Marriage Act highlighted above, and the criminalisation of interfaith marriages in the name of forced conversions, couples are being forced to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. This twin monitoring from the law and the extreme Right is performing its intended task of discouraging interfaith marriages and maintaining religious ‘purity’.

All in all, the discourse around marriage in India ceases to place adult individuals at the center. Familial and societal forces have always played a role in deciding young people’s futures. By making the implementation of the Special Marriage Act so complex, the law is further complicating the lives of young people who have decided to choose their own partners. Lastly, the attitude of the law is reflected in the name of the act itself — the ‘Special’ Marriage Act. A marriage that is deemed special because it is seen as an anomaly, something that is out of the ordinary and deserves constant scrutiny.


A ‘New’ India Can’t Be Built By Abandoning the Core Values Of Our Founding Fathers

By Rajdeep Sardesai

Jan 01, 2021

After a traumatic and turbulent 2020, it’s time to ring in a New Year with hope. And since Rabindranath Tagore is being rediscovered by our netas ahead of the Bengal elections, this is a prayer for India in 2021 that draws inspiration from the great poet-laureate.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Where an Indian identity is determined by citizenship, and not divided by the narrow domestic walls of caste, region or religion. Where true secularism demands that no State authority promote or discriminate against any religion, where equal respect for all faiths must be the basis of our constitutional secularism.

Where an interfaith marriage won’t be demonised as “love jihad”. Where a consenting adult couple will not have to prove their love to a district magistrate or a local police officer in India’s most populous state or else be locked up. Where eating beef isn’t a crime in one state while it is part of an essential diet in a neighbouring one. Where agitating farmers aren’t water-cannoned or barricaded in the winter freeze. Where a farmer isn’t looked at with suspicion because he wants to be heard, where a turbaned Sikh isn’t a Khalistani but a kisan putra. Where crucial laws are passed by consultation and not by diktat, where key stakeholders are part of pre-legislative discussion. Where dissent isn’t criminalised, where protesting students, academics and human rights activists are not thrown into jail as anti-nationals and charged under non-bailable anti-terror laws.

Where a coronavirus vaccine is made available first to those most at risk and not those who wear their VVIP badges on their sleeve. Where no one labels a community as corona-carriers simply to cater to rank prejudice. Where public health systems are designed to ensure quality treatment for all. Where private healthcare recognises the difference between profits and profiteering. Where science scores over superstition and medical care, where clean air is a national priority.

Where it shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us of the plight of the urban poor. Where no one has to ever walk hundreds of kilometres from urban shanties to their villages because of a national lockdown. Where the poor and marginalised must not be abandoned so cruelly even as the middle class and elite live in the comfort of their gated colonies and high-rise apartments.

Where a PM Cares Fund cannot be a body “owned” and “controlled” by the Government of India, but then also not come under Right to Information laws because it receives private funds. That, as taxpayers, we have the right to know where and how our monies are being spent. Where election funding too is made more transparent: Where the Information Commission doesn’t turn around and say that there is “no public interest” in revealing the details of political donors under an opaque electoral bonds scheme.

Where before we spend public money on refurbishing Parliament, we first restore the spirit of parliamentary democracy. Where democracy encourages a decentralisation in the power structure. Where political parties aren’t a family inheritance, but are built on merit. Where a robust democracy isn’t just about winning elections but ensuring a level- playing field for all those contesting elections. Where money power isn’t used for buying Members of Parliament or Members of the Legislative Assembly to topple governments and subvert mandates, where enforcement agencies don’t become weapons of threat and intimidation against political opponents.

Where the promise of free markets doesn’t end up in market monopolies, where the licence-permit raj doesn’t become a patron-crony rule. Where the vast informal sector is boosted and job-creating industries incentivised. Where growth figures aren’t fudged and headline management matters less than hard facts. Where judges recognise that notions of personal liberty cannot be selective: An octogenarian activist must not struggle for weeks to get a straw sipper in jail while influential individuals are granted instant immunity from prosecution and arrest. Where judges eschew all post-retirement benefits, where criticising the judiciary isn’t seen as criminal contempt. Where habeas corpus petitions are heard with urgency.

Where an actor’s suicide doesn’t become a national soap opera, while a farmer’s suicide is a mere statistic. Where news media is a watchdog. Where the duty of TV networks is to inform not incite, where news matters more than noise, where sense scores over sensation. Where TRPs must stand for Television Respect Points and not a crude attempt to get eyeballs at all costs. Where social media platforms can’t get away with allowing fake news and hate speech on their sites. Where a “new” India can’t be built by abandoning the core values of our founding fathers.

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. Happy New Year.


Rajdeep Sardesai is a writer, senior journalist and author


Warping A Great Faith: Both ‘Hard’ And ‘Soft’ Hindutva Are Expedient Uses Of Religion For Political Gains

By Pavan K Varma

January 1, 2021

As we step into a new decade, Hinduism, and its interpretation and practice, will play an increasingly pivotal role. We have seen the manifestation of ‘hard’ political Hindutva, wedded to the goal of a Hindu Rashtra. It stands discredited not for its evangelism, but for its lack of knowledge of the basics of Hinduism. Another label bandied about is ‘soft’ Hindutva, but with no real clarity about what it means. Since India is a deeply religious country, such notions need to be investigated before they distort the role religion plays in politics and, indeed, in our lives.

The pejorative phrase ‘soft Hindutva’ is an outcome of a curious – if unintended – collusion between the ultra-Hindu right and the ultra-liberal left. The supporters of political Hindutva believe that they have a monopoly over public display of religion (PDR). They are overt in their passionate – and sometimes fanatical – belief in the need to project, promote and impose their warped view of Hinduism. Thus, they view PDR by any other section of the political class, as an attempt to usurp their ordained public space through a weak imitation, ‘soft’ as against their ‘hard’ religious commitment.

The ultra-liberal left is dismissive about religion per se, and believes that any public show of personal religious fealty by politicians is a betrayal of secularism. For its votaries, political Hindutva can be countered not by a saner practice of religion, but by not practising religion at all, least of all publicly.

I wonder what Mahatma Gandhi would have thought of these unseemly definitional shenanigans. He was, as Nehru said, ‘a Hindu to the innermost depth of his being’. During his first jail term in South Africa (January 1908), he read Rajayoga, commentaries on the Gita. During his second incarceration (October-December 1908) he read the Bhagwad Gita almost every day.

During his third imprisonment (February-May 1909) he read the Veda-Shabda-Sangana, the Upanishads, the Manusmriti, Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra, and re-read the Gita. One of the first books published by his International Press in Phoenix, Natal, was an abridged version of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which, as he wrote in his autobiography, was ‘the greatest book in all devotional literature’.

He did not, therefore, see anything wrong in espousing the utopia of Ram Rajya. But – and this is critically important – he combined his staunch belief in Hinduism with the fullest respect for all religions.

Let us take another example. Madan Mohan Malviya (1861-1946) was four times the president of the Indian National Congress, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and like him a devout Hindu. When, as a member of the Congress, he founded the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Mahasabha, for the welfare of Hindus and Hinduism, was he practising soft Hindutva or merely following his personal faith? He is credited for having begun the aarti puja at Har-ki-Pauri in Haridwar – which continues to this day – and the setting up of organisations for the protection of the cow, and for a cleaner Ganga.

He is also the iconic founder of the Banaras Hindu University, from where, as its vice-chancellor, he published a magazine called Sanatan Dharma to promote religious and dharmic interests. The national slogan – Satyameva Jayate – taken from the Mundaka Upanishad, was also his contribution. Did all of this make him a proud Hindu immersed in his faith, or just a practitioner of soft Hindutva, uncritically emulating Savarkar and the RSS?

Our assessments need to get away from such knee-jerk categorisations and aspire to a more reflective inquiry. The truth is that when Hinduism is reduced to cynical tokenism for short-term political dividends, it is soft Hindutva. When it is devalued to illiterate aggression for long-term political gain, it is political Hindutva. Both these extremes are a deliberate ploy to make genuine Hindus lose agency of the way they wish to practice their religion in conformity with republican values, democratic principles and constitutional secularism.

Swami Vivekananda, the towering symbol of Hindu renaissance, would have been impatient of such categorisations of ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. His mission was to espouse an enlightened and inclusive form of Hinduism sans hatred, intolerance and violence. Once, when he was berated by conservative Hindu critics for staying with a Muslim lawyer in Mount Abu, he expostulated: ‘Sir, what do you mean? I am a Sanyasin. I am above all your social conventions … I am not afraid of God because he sanctions it. I am not afraid of the scriptures, because they allow it. But I am afraid of you people and your society. You know nothing of God and the scriptures. I see Brahman everywhere manifested through even the meanest creature. For me there is nothing high or low. Shiva, Shiva!’

Hinduism deserves a true renaissance based on its great wisdoms. But this will require its followers to study their religious legacy, and prevent its distortion by ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Hindutva-vadis.

Lord Ram in the Ramayana says: ‘Janani Janambhoomischa Swargadapi Gariyasi’ – Mother and motherland are superior to heaven. Today, our motherland requires social harmony and stability to realise her destiny of becoming one of the great nations of the world. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’, is not to become just an expedient slogan, it must be based on Swami Vivekananda’s vision and on Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusiveness.


Iran’s Look East Policy May Force US Rethink

By Yogesh Gupta

Jan 02, 2021

US President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), two years back was a disaster as it only yielded rippling negative consequences which are reshaping the contours of the Middle East politics even now. Trump’s calculation was that the deal was not good enough as it had neither tied Iran’s missile programme nor its destabilising behaviour in the region; that a policy of “maximum pressure” by putting sanctions on the Iranian oil exports would force Tehran to make far-reaching concessions on these issues, eliminating its aggressive behaviour.

What has the abrogation of the deal achieved? Iran’s economy is in tatters leading to high unemployment, inflation and collapse of its currency. Iranians can’t trade, do business, travel or even import vaccines against the Covid virus. Notwithstanding their sufferings, the revolutionary Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khamenei (AK), continues to expand its influence. Any expectation that these sufferings would encourage the Iranian people to revolt against the regime has been belied. Iran has started enriching uranium at a much higher level than that prescribed in JCPOA.

This is one more case of the US establishment’s policy going wrong. Further steps by the Trump administration like the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation, assassination of its top commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 and its tacit nod to the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh by Israeli agents reportedly on November 27 last year , have sharply alienated the Iranian public opinion against the US.

The influence of the conservative IRGC backing the clergy and hardliners in parliament has grown. The Iranian people have lost faith in the policy of constructive engagement and cooperation with the West and are now looking favourably on a shift towards the East.

Iran has countered the US policy of maximum pressure by displaying maximum resistance. Iranian-backed militias launched attacks on the two Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 and rocket attacks against the US air base at Balad in Iraq in January 2020.

Given that its conventional weapons capability is limited, Iran has been sponsoring the sub-state actors to project its influence in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. The IRGC, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its units of foreign fighters like Fatemiyoun (made up of Afghan Shias) and Zainebiyoun (Pakistani Shias) played an important role in keeping Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria against the opposition of several countries.

Increasing hostility between the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman and the AK regime in Iran is reshaping the political dynamics in the region. Saudi Arabia is seeking increasing support from Israel in counter-terrorism and security fields against Iran, perceived as their common adversary. Turkey and Malaysia are siding more with Iran. With the two-state solution to the Palestinian issue nowhere in sight, the Trump administration has encouraged the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The US policy of supporting Israel to retain a perennial edge over its other neighbours in the nuclear and military domains has emboldened Israel to take pre-emptive actions against Iran whenever it feels its security interests are threatened. Iran has demonstrated its ability to retaliate with precision and is waiting for an opportune moment, probably after the departure of President Trump.

The US-Israeli pressure on Iran has impelled her to look to China and Russia for political, economic and strategic support. Iran and China have agreed on a partnership under which China would make an investment of $400 billion in Iran over a 25 year period in its economy, infrastructure and industries.

Iran has reportedly allowed to develop Jask, a fishing village outside the Gulf, into a deep sea port for dual use by the Chinese navy; it will bypass the tension-ridden Strait of Hormuz for supply of crude oil. Iran has also reportedly agreed to let China establish a regional ‘listening’ post at Chabahar, which would allow her to “intercept signals within a range of about 3,000 miles”.

This would cover several American bases in the Gulf under the US Central Command (CENTCOM) as well as strategic locations of India and other countries. Iran is hoping that the presence of the Chinese intelligence, electronic warfare and air defence systems would help her in forestalling attacks from the US and Israel.

Russia is discussing upgrade of its treaty of cooperation signed with Iran in December, 2001. Defying the US sanctions, Russia is willing to sell advance weaponry, including its Su-30 fighters,

T-90 tanks and S-400 air defence system to Iran in exchange for access to bases for its air and naval forces. Iran, China and Russia have been carrying out joint military exercises for some time.

These proposals indicate the turn that Iran could take if it is pushed to the extreme. Fortunately, the US President-elect Biden is aware of the importance of Iran in the Gulf and has signalled that his administration would be prepared to rejoin the nuclear deal. Though both the US and Iran have hardened their positions on the JCPOA, given a choice, Iran would not close its doors on relations with the US, Europe and their partners.

The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia would need to be more forthcoming in meeting Iran’s legitimate aspirations for regime survival and economic development. Failure to do so would only push Iran towards China and Russia, increasing big power rivalries in the region with cascading conflicts, which would harm everyone.

Acceptance of Iran in a US-brokered pluralistic deal (like JCPOA) will certainly reduce tensions in the region, giving one more chance to peace, stability and cooperation. India will welcome such an initiative, as it will help her in augmenting its much-needed political, economic and strategic cooperation with Iran and other countries in the region.


Covid Vaccine Marks Milestone In Science

By Dinesh C Sharma

Jan 02, 2021

It was on the eve of 2020 that China officially notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) of some cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan. The symptoms were common to several respiratory diseases, but occurrence of a cluster of cases within a short span of time, and with severity, raised the alarm.

Based on laboratory tests that ruled out the causative agent to be any known virus such as SARS, MERS or avian influenza, the world body on January 9, 2020 declared the causative agent to be a novel coronavirus. Within weeks, evidence emerged that the virus was capable of spreading from human to human, that it causes severe disease and has no known treatment. And within months, millions of cases were reported from dozens of countries. This turned 2020 into the year of the pandemic. The rapidity with which the global scientific community responded, it appears that 2021 could be the year of the vaccine.

The response of the scientific community to the pandemic was unprecedented. From characterisation of the novel coronavirus to a set of vaccines against it — everything was achieved in a span of less than a year. On January 10, 2020, a consortium of Chinese and Australian scientists released the first complete genetic sequence of the novel virus from a case of respiratory disease caused in the Wuhan outbreak. This triggered the interest of several scientific groups the world over, who started developing new

diagnostic tests, possible treatment and most importantly, vaccines against the virus. As the number of cases mounted in many countries, new insights were gained into the disease and several treatment options like hydroxychloroquine tried and protocols developed for management and care. All the information and knowledge produced was shared in real-time through journals and social media platforms of scientific research like bioRxiv and medRxiv.

Never before in the history of medicine, a vaccine against a new virus has been developed, tested, produced and administered in such a short time. The process of vaccine development, which took decades in the past, has been compressed and achieved within months. The corona vaccine is truly the breakthrough of 2020. Scientists started working on Covid-19 vaccines using traditional approaches (inactivated, virus-like particle) as well as new platforms (mRNA).

The level of hectic scientific activity can be gauged from the fact that WHO’s ‘Covid-19 candidate vaccine tracker’ is updated twice a week. On the last count, there were 60 vaccines in clinical development, undergoing various stages of human trial. Another 172 vaccine candidates are in pre-clinical stage. About a dozen Covid-19 vaccines are in various stages of development in India. A couple of vaccines have been licensed in the West and millions of doses have already been administered.

A number of factors are responsible for the time taken for a vaccine from bench to clinic getting reduced from several years to a few months. First, of course, is the fact that genetic information of the novel virus was shared as soon as it was available. Some groups already working on coronaviruses could tweak their efforts to work on the novel coronavirus. Others working on platforms like messenger RNA for several years also tested their platform for the novel coronavirus. All these developments got speeded up as funding agencies and governments provided the necessary funds, and placed purchase orders with manufacturers in advance. There was also great public-private partnership in vaccine development as seen in the Oxford University-Astra Zeneca and Bharat Biotech-ICMR projects.

Once developed in laboratory, vaccines have to be clinically tested for safety and efficacy, involving human volunteers. Normally, this entails three stages, one following the other. Regulatory authorities approved one stage of clinical trial based on results of the previous one. For example, the first stage human trial approval depends on the results of animal studies and first stage data forms the basis for approval of the second stage. It is a time consuming process, involving recruitment of trial participants, ethical approvals, enlisting hospitals for multi-centric trials, data reviews etc. National regulations also mandate that local clinical data is generated for vaccines developed in other countries to be marketed in own country.

Since the occurrence of recent pandemics like SARS and Ebola, the global health community has been discussing ways to fast-track vaccine development in the event of a pandemic. These ideas have now been implemented for Covid-19 vaccines. One of the significant ways to reduce ‘time to market’ is to allow phase 1 and 2 human studies in parallel, like it has been done for the Bharat Biotech vaccine. Regulators in many countries have also permitted local clinical trials of vaccines developed in China.

Vaccine manufacturers too have speeded up their processes. Even as clinical data is getting generated for regulatory approvals, they have gone ahead with mass manufacturing of vaccines.

This facilitates the availability of vaccine doses as soon as vaccines are licensed for mass use, as has happened with the Moderna vaccine in America and the UK. The Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech have kept vaccine doses ready for shipment in anticipation of emergency use approvals. The government, on its part, has conducted trial runs for the vaccine rollout. This way, the entire chain, from development to rollout, has been fast-tracked.

Vaccine manufacturers and the government will have to ensure that a mechanism is also in place for monitoring vaccine-related adverse events. This is critical as it is the first time a vaccine is going to be administered to the adult

population on such a large scale. Though vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vax movement are not major challenges in India, quick reporting and addressing of adverse effects can help prevent resistance to vaccination.

The Covid-19 vaccine development has provided a new template for future pandemics, and also for addressing other infectious diseases. If governments, international agencies, scientists and private companies can pool resources and expertise for Covid-19, they can surely do so for a plethora of other diseases that take a higher toll and are both preventable and treatable. That’s a hopeful note on which to begin the year 2021.



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