Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Agitprop Psyops Getting To The Judiciary?

Jurisprudence is an esoteric subject to the laity. Judges are demigods and lawyers their mediators! Despite this lofty public perception, Indian courts have in the past adjudicated matters which the laity might find frivolous and, in some cases delivered judgements which the laity might find bizarre. Some years ago a High Court sat on Gandhi Jayanti day (one of three compulsory Indian national holidays), to adjudicate a matter related to a cricket board!

 

In the Bhima Koregaon case in which ‘social activists associated with Maoist links’ were accused of making inflammatory speeches leading to wide–spread violence, the Supreme Court held that dissent was a safety–valve of democracy. It was another matter that the same Supreme Court not only refused bail to a journalist but when his lawyer pleaded that his life was in danger, gratuitously added in an obiter dictum, that for one whose life was in danger, a jail was the safest place to be in!

 

In 2015 the High Court of Punjab and Haryana decreed that jail inmates have a right to have sex with their partners! In 2018 the Bombay High Court determined that limiting only four players to a table in a game of rummy was unreasonable!


The Supreme Court’s decision in the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) vs the Union of India (CivilAppeal No.1510 of 2020—Arisingout of SLP (C) No.33928 of 2011) makes for curious reading. The NGO which claims to be “resisting globalization, combating communalism and saving democracy” filed the SLP in the Supreme Court challenging the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act,2010.

In what has become a standard template (for challenging Indian government acts by now), the NGO challenged the FCRA on the grounds that it violated its fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Government contended that the appellant organisation is not entitled to invoke fundamental rights as they are guaranteed only to citizens and that the appellant organisation cannot be considered a citizen. While agreeing with the contention that being an organisation the NGO cannot invoke rights under Article 19, the Supreme Court has “read down” Clause 3. (VI) of the FCRA Rules which were framed based on the Act. Here is the relevant clause:

“3. Guidelines for declaration of an organisation to be of a political nature, not being a political party – The Central Government may specify any organisation as organisation of political nature on one or more of the following grounds:

(ii) Any Trade Union whose objectives include activities for promoting political goals;

(iii) Any voluntary action group with objectives of a political nature or which participates in political activities;

(iv) Front or mass organisations like Students Unions, Workers' Unions, Youth Forums and Women's wing of a political party;

(v) Organisation of farmers, workers, students, youth based on caste, community, religion, language or otherwise, which is not directly aligned to any political party, but whose objectives, as stated in the Memorandum of Association, or activities gathered through other material evidence, include steps towards advancement of Political interests of such groups;

(vi) Any organisation, by whatever name called, which habitually engages itself in or employs common methods of political action like ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’, ‘rasta roko’, ‘rail roko’ or ‘jail bharo’ in support of public causes.”

The Court nuanced that while ‘bandh’, ‘hartal’ ‘rasta roko’ etc. are legitimate political activities, an NGO resorting to the same activities need not necessarily be categorised as a political organisation. Did the Court err in nuancing its interpretation of the law on the grounds that it was ‘vaguely’ or ‘ambiguously’ worded?

It is not apparent from the 23–page judgement whether the Court has gone into the antecedents of the NGO or even whether the government has brought them to its notice. Curiously, very is little is known of the organisation which calls itself Indian Social Action Forum shortened as INSAF with its tell–tale Arabic connotation. Its website does not give anything away. We do not know who its founders, directors or present administrators are. All we know is that it calls itself ‘a national forum of over 700 movements and NGOs in India’. Its website is full of ‘papers’, re–posted or hyperlinked from other sources, calling for halting every project which in anyway advances human progress from developing infra–structures to constructing nuclear power plants.

Among those hyperlinked is a paper by Ben Hayes entitled “Counter–Terrorism,‘Policy Laundering’ And The FATF—Legalising Surveillance, Regulating CivilSociety”. The number of NGOs/NPOs involved in the preparation and funding of the paper (which can be seen peppered across its pages) tells its own story. They include ‘Transnational Institute’, ‘Statewatch’ and ‘Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development’, shortened as Cordaid. While nations across the world struggle to control terrorist organisations, the paper calls for making the FinancialAction Task Force (FATF), ‘the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog’, virtually ineffective. It calls into question UNSC Resolution 1373 of September 28, 2011 which requires member nations “to criminalize the support of terrorism by freezing the assets of suspected terrorists”.

Can judges be absolutely dispassionate in adjudicating legal disputes? Or are they only too human to be ‘products of the times’ in which they live and work? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935), a U. S. Supreme Court justice known as “the Great Dissenter” was a study in contrast. He delivered judgments that made him look like a product of his times, like his judgement in the Virginia eugenics aka Buck vs Bell (1927) case. In marked contrast in the Lochner vs New York (1905) case he ruled removing the 60–hour per week work limit for bakery workers. But his ruling in the Schenck vs United States (1919) case is conspicuous for its interpretation of the US First Amendment, which protects US citizens’ freedom of speech from legislative interference. The ruling held that in times of war, national security takes precedence over individuals’ right to freedom of speech. 

Back home in India, are agitprop psyops getting to the judiciary?udiciary?

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Anti–CAA Agitprop And Weathercock Intellectuals

Have you ever wondered what the biggest failure of India’s intelligentsia was?

Let me tell you a story. It is a small anecdote from the tumultuous days of the French revolution between 1789 and 1799. A newspaper reporter was interviewing a leader of the revolution in a Paris café. As they were sipping coffee and chatting, a wildly howling mob shouting slogans stomped by along the adjoining street. The reporter wondered aloud what the procession was all about. On hearing this, the leader shouted “Oh my God, I am supposed to lead the procession” and ran out.

At times when mass movements acquire a momentum of their own, revolutionary leaders might have to follow the mobs while pretending they were leading. But the intellectuals of a society are not weathercocks but its leading lights. They do not—and should not—sometimes follow while pretending to always lead. They should possess the moral fibre and intellectual integrity to pursue ideals even if they are unpopular.

The words honesty and integrity are interchangeable but are paired to amplify the meaning, in a figure of speech called synonymia. The word integrity is derived from the mathematical word integer, meaning a whole number, undivided and complete. There can be no partial honesty or fractional integrity. In the case of public intellectuals it is an all or none phenomenon. Lamentably many of our public intellectuals fail in this test.

As a test of the principle, consider the idea of freedom of expression. If a society cannot provide the protection needed for free expression of ideas, it is the public intellectuals who should hold themselves responsible for their failure to create the ambience for free flow of ideas. Is the principle of freedom of expression absolute or are there limits to it? If the public intellectuals champion absolute freedom on one occasion, but argue alibis for scuttling it on another occasion for political reasons, their vacillation cannot advance the cause of freedom of expression. It keeps the society splintered by competitive populism. If the public intellectuals swing with political winds they cannot expect the society to conform to abstract ideals.

Consider the ongoing agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. Let us look what citizenship means under various Indian laws. We will try to explain it in plain language devoid of legal lingo.  

The issue of citizenship is dealt with in the very beginning of the Indian Constitution (in Part II) just after nation and the powers of the national government are defined. Articles 5 to 11 are related to citizenship. While Part II confers citizenship to residents in the territory of India when the nation was formed, it also allowed for conferring citizenship to those Indians who remained in Pakistan at the time of partition and, those who went there after partition but wanted to return to India—before July 1948.

The Citizenship Act of1955 defines natural and acquired citizenship in clauses 3 to 7. It flows from Part II of the Constitution and is enacted to amplify and encode rules and regulations for conferring citizenship. Here briefly are the modes that confer citizenship:

1.     Citizenship by birth (Clause 3)
2.    Citizenship by descent (Clause 4)
3.    Citizenship by registration (Clause 5)
4.    Citizenship by naturalization (Clause 6)
5.  Special provision as to citizenship of persons covered by the Assam Accord (Clause 6A)
6.    Citizenship by incorporation of territory (Clause 7)

There is no ambiguity about the nature or cause of partition of the country. Pakistan and its later splinter Bangladesh were formed as the Muslims of undivided India wanted a separate state for themselves. Many non–Muslims remained in Pakistan after partition either because they were complacent about their status despite the religious nature of the newly formed state or because of an inertia that held them back from making the long journey to India. It was also possible that they stayed back as they reposed faith in the assurances given by leaders of the nascent state who promised them complete religious freedom.  

What happened to them in the subsequent decades too needs no recounting. To put it simply their populations were decimated. Many of them had to flee to India, the only country in which they felt they could seek asylum.

All that the CAA does is to provide relief to persecuted minorities fleeing Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who would otherwise be defined as ‘illegal migrants’ under Section 2 (1) (b) of the 1955 Citizenship Act. It does not take away the rights of anyone nor does it seek to strip bona fide Indian citizens of their citizenship. It does not abrogate the Clause 6 (Naturalisation) of the principal act by which anyone from outside can seek citizenship. There is a sunset clause in the CAA. It limits the ‘relief’ to those who entered India before December 31, 2014.

The conduct of the opposition parties has no surprises. Their objective is to usurp power, no matter how divisive and fraught with long–term consequences their modus could be. It is the conduct of the public intellectuals that should surprise. 

Those who are making a public spectacle of reading the Preamble in agitations across the country should carefully read the wording of Article 11 of the Constitution. It confers unqualified power to the Parliament to make provisions with respect to acquisition and termination of all matters relating to citizenship. Here is what it states:
“11. Nothing in the foregoing provisions of this Part shall derogate from the power of Parliament to make any provision with respect to the acquisition and termination of citizenship and all other matters relating to citizenship.”
Is the ongoing agitation mere tilting at windmills or a machination of deception, disinformation and psychological operations (known as Dee–Dee–PsyOps in the parlance of intelligence agencies), intended to intimidate the central government against bringing in progressive legislations like the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the Supreme Court hearing petitions against the abrogation of Article 370 and the CAA?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Pseudo-Experts Failed Pseudo-Seculars!

Excerpted from “Ram Janma Bhumi In High Court–How Pseudo-Experts Failed Pseudo-Seculars!” (pp. 362–385) In “Twisting Facts To Suit Theories & Other Selections From Voxindica”

Imagine a murder trial in progress in a court room. The prosecution introduces a forensic expert whose testimony establishes the time and cause of death. Imagine the defence counsel cross-examining the forensic expert, as part of normal court room procedure. Here is a snatch of the imaginary cross examination:

Defence Counsel: Would you please tell the court doctor, the exact time when the murder was committed and the cause of death?

Forensic Expert: Certainly. It was committed between 3.30 PM and 5.30 PM on the fifteenth of this month. The cause of death was stabbing with a blunt knife.

DC: How could you be so certain?

FE: You know; I was brought in as a forensic expert in this case.

DC: You are a forensic pathologist, then?

FE: No, I am not.

DC: Have you conducted any post-mortem examinations in the past?

FE: I have not conducted any.

DC: Have you conducted any surgeries?

FE: I have not conducted any surgeries.

DC: Are you a surgeon?

FE: No, I am not.

DC: Pardon me doctor, if you are not a forensic pathologist or a surgeon what is your specialty?

FE: I am a physician.

DC: If you are not a forensic pathologist, how did you tell with certainty the time and cause of death?

FE: You see, in the hospital where I work, doctors meet in the canteen during breaks. I was informed by a pathologist colleague who works in our hospital and who has read about the case in the newspapers, about the possible time and cause of death. I have also gone through various newspapers which published details of the case. It was based on these that I am able to tell with certainty, the time and cause of death.

DC: Does it mean that you cannot specify the time and cause of death based on your own study or your own knowledge.

FE: No. But I am a doctor. Based on what I have heard and read, I can tell the exact time and cause of death.

The Defence Counsel could have established that the doctor appeared as a witness in the case only to help his ‘old boy network’. But lengthening the imaginary ‘cross examination’ would test the patience of the reader. The imaginary scene is to help readers appreciate the type of ‘pseudo-experts’ fielded in the Ram Janma Bhumi case and how their testimonies were ripped apart in the cross examination. The pseudo-experts asserted that the mosque was not built on any temple debris and in fact no temple was destroyed, not only in Ayodhya but anywhere in the lands ruled by the Mogul invaders. Even normally reticent judges could not help chastising the witnesses in the case.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Death Penalty: Inconsistent Sentencing, Political Mercy Pleas, Erroneous Convictions. Abolition, A Systemic Correction

Inconsistent Death Penalties

Had the wheels of justice ground faster—instead of at the proverbial snail’s pace—this man would have been hanged by now. The convict from a remote village in the Nanded district of Maharashtra was accused of killing his wife and four children in 2007. The District Sessions Court awarded him death sentence which was upheld by the High Court and the Supreme Court. His review petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2012, which it now ‘recalled’ observing that all the courts relied on an ‘extra-judicial confession’ and ‘ignoring medical evidence’. His sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment. (ChoudharyAmit Anand. “SC admits mistake in awarding death sentence, commutes it to life sentence.” The Times Of India. October 2, 2019. https://bit.ly/31SNFSW

In May 2019 the Supreme Court had acquitted six persons whom it sentenced to death ten years before in a case involving dacoity, gang-rape and murder of five persons of a family in Nashik in 2003. The case escalated through the tortuous judicial processes and the Apex court confirmed the death sentences on April 30, 2009. In its latest judgement the Court observed that the accused were

“… from the lower strata of society and are very poor labourers … false implication cannot be ruled out since it is common occurrence that in serious offences, sometimes innocent persons are roped in.” (Mahapatra, Dhananjay. “6 awarded death by SC in 2009, acquitted in 2019”. The Times Of India. May 5, 2019. https://bit.ly/2oVJbwu)

A google search for “SC admits mistake”, prompted by the first report cited above, yielded five results. Here are the remaining three: “SC seeks Centre's reply on plea challenging mandatory death penalty under SC/ST Act” (The Times Of India. May 10, 2019. https://bit.ly/2MmvHBH); “Decade after awarding death, SC commutes sentence to life imprisonment for delay in deciding mercy plea”. (ChoudharyAmit Anand. The Times Of India. February 22, 2019. https://bit.ly/2LUYpuAand “SC reverses man’s death sentence; revives debate on extreme penalty” (Mahapatra, Dhananjay. The Times Of India. November 28, 2018. https://bit.ly/2pTbbRP). All these cases were reported by The Times Of India between November 2018 and October 2019. 

Socio–Politics Of Mercy Petitions

On March 8, 1993, an APSRTC bus from Hyderabad was on its way to Chilakaluripeta in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. In the pre-dawn hours, it was waylaid by two dacoits, Sathuluru Chalapathi Rao and Gentela Vijayavardhan Rao, as it cleared the town of Narasaraopeta and was just twenty kilometres from its destination. The duo brandished deadly weapons and threatened the passengers to hand over their valuables. One of them carried a can of petrol and sprinkled it from the back of the bus to the front entrance. They threatened to set fire to the bus if their demands were not immediately met. Whether some passengers resisted or whether the dacoits panicked was not clear but the duo closed the door and carried out their threat. They set fire to the bus and twenty-three sleeping passengers were engulfed in flames and charred to death. Several others sustained serious burn injuries. The culprits were arrested ten days later and the case culminated in the Supreme Court which upheld the death sentence on August 28, 1996. The Supreme Court judgement which narrated the gruesome details of the crime was reported in the India Kanoon portal: “Gentela Vijayavardhan Rao And Anr vs State Of Andhra Pradesh on 28, August, 1996” (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1517391/). George Fernandes and Rajni Kothari filed a mercy petition. President Shankar Dayal Sharma rejected it. Mahaswetha Devi filed a second mercy petition. The Supreme Court stayed its own sentence in view of the pendency of the mercy plea. Finally, President K. R. Narayanan commuted their sentence.      

 

On August 14, 2004, Dhananjay Chatterjee an ‘impoverished guard’ in a Kolkata building was hanged. Although bearing a Brahmin name, Dhananjay Chatterjee was far from being a member of the Kolkata bhadralok, or intellectual elite…His execution followed a shrill campaign…”, wrote N. Jayaram:  “How India hanged a poor watchman whose guilt was far from established” (Scroll.in. July 21, 2015. https://bit.ly/35d7FSe). An emerging 24/7 news channel added its bit to the shrillness of the campaign. The misfortune of birth status added to Chatterjee’s misery of poverty. He had spent fourteen years in jail before he was hanged. President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam rejected his mercy plea. However, it must be said in his defence that although the President is vested with the authority to pardon a criminal under Art. 71 (1) (c) of the Constitution, in practice, the President merely follows the recommendation of the Home Ministry. The case did not arouse ‘the quality of mercy’ in the conscience of civil rights activists. No NGO or civil rights group knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court to open it in the small hours to hear a revision plea. No newspaper headlined the next day “And they hanged Dhananjay Chatterjee”! 

 

If the frenzy of misplaced social vigilantism took its toll in Chatterjee’s case it was the political frenzy that impacted the Indira Gandhi assassination case. This is not to say that the assassins did not deserve death sentence. One of the assassins, Beant Singh fired thirty-three bullets into her body. He was killed instantly when her ITBP security guards opened fire. A second assassin Satwant Singh fired twenty-three bullets but was seriously injured in the crossfire with a bullet lodged in his spine. In normal circumstances, his condition would have rendered him ineligible for hanging. A plea to the Supreme Court to allow him to recover was disallowed. A medical team hastily removed the bullet to ‘ready’ him for the hanging. (Bhatnagar, Rakesh. “The accused did not want to be defended”. DNA. October, 30, 2009 https://bit.ly/2Iw5T5c). Ram Jethmalani pleaded in vain that the case against the third assassin, Kehar Singh was flimsy and highly circumstantial and did not ‘prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt’. The President disallowed mercy petitions with utmost dispatch. 

 

The partisan approach of civil rights groups, political parties, state legislatures and the ‘intelligentsia’ in seeking mercy for convicts has not escaped the attention of the Supreme Court. Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was sentenced to death for killing Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995, did not file a mercy plea but the NGO ‘Lawyers for Human Rights International’ sought a review of the trial court verdict. The Punjab state legislature passed a resolution seeking mercy for Rajoana. Similar resolutions were passed by the Jammu & Kashmir legislature in the Afzal Guru case and the Tamil Nadu legislature in the Rajiv Gandhi assassins’ cases. On the other hand, the Court pointed out; poor people like Dhananjay Chatterjee who does not have societal support always got a raw deal with respect to mercy petitions. (“Why wide disparity in treatment of mercy pleas? SC asks” The Times Of India. May 27, 2012. https://bit.ly/31Q51jf). The Supreme Court, however, agreed that there was subjectivity and it was individual perceptions of the judges that decide whether a convict should be awarded death sentence or life imprisonment. (Mahapatra, Dhananjay. “Judges' perception dominant factor in death or life sentence: SC”. The Times Of India. Jan 25, 2011. https://bit.ly/30MffzX).

Abolition, A Systemic Correction

It is the grey areas in the administration of criminal justice that cause these anomalies. If all are equal in the eyes of the law, why was the mercy plea of Dhananjay Chatterjee rejected and the one in the Chilakaluripeta bus burning case entertained? The contrast is stark. A person whose crime might not have been ‘proven beyond all reasonable doubt’ was sent to the gallows but the sentence of the duo who murdered twenty-three people in cold blood was commuted. In the Neeraj Grover murder case (2008) a small time film actress (whom Grover, creative head of Synergy Adlabs was helping to find a foothold in the film industry) and her boyfriend were accused of committing the crime. The duo cut up Grover’s body into 3oo pieces, packed them in gunny bags and was carrying the body to burn it deep in a forest. Mumbai tabloids published other macabre details of the crime and its aftermath. According to one, after the boyfriend stabbed Grover, with the dead body lying in the next room, the duo had sex twice before their ‘next operation’. The actress was sentenced to three years, not for murder but for trying to destroy evidence. She was released by the end of the trial. The boyfriend was sentenced to three years for destroying evidence and ten years for culpable homicide, with both sentences to be run concurrently. In the Naina Sahni murder case (2013) the accused, Sushil Sharma cut up her body and tried to burn the pieces in a restaurant tandoor. He was not awarded death sentence. In the Jessica Lal (2010) and the Priyadarshini Mattoo (2010) cases too no death sentences were awarded. In two ‘high profile’ murder cases in Hyderabad the well-heeled accused, to use an Americanism, ‘walked’.

In an article in the ‘Journal of Law and Criminal Justice’, Arvind P. Bhanu mentioned that fourteen retired judges wrote to the President that “Supreme Court had erroneously given the death penalty to 15 people since 1996”. (“Arbitrariness in Capital Sentencing System: No Disappearance of Furman-Like Challenge”. Journal of Law and Criminal Justice. December 2014, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 187-199). The Law Commission Report on Death Penalty (No. 262, 2015) pointed out that the differences in the quantum of punishment was due to the interpretation of ‘mitigating circumstances’, such as age. According to it, the data collected “substantiate the picture of inconsistent, arbitrary and judge-centric application of the death penalty.” (p.149). The following portion of the report is worth citing verbatim:

“Numerous committee reports as well as judgments of the Supreme Court have recognized that the administration of criminal justice in the country is in deep crisis. Lack of resources, outdated modes of investigation, over-stretched police force, ineffective prosecution, and poor legal aid are some of the problems besetting the system. Death penalty operates within this context and therefore suffers from the same structural and systemic impediments. The administration of capital punishment thus remains fallible and vulnerable to misapplication. The vagaries of the system also operate disproportionately against the socially and economically marginalized who may lack the resources to effectively advocate their rights within an adversarial criminal justice system.” (pp. 223-224)

The report, however, takes into consideration concerns regarding terrorism and makes the following caveat:

“… [C]oncern is often raised that abolition of death penalty for terrorism related offences and waging war, will affect national security. However, given the concerns raised by the law makers, the commission does not see any reason to wait any longer to take the first step towards abolition of the death penalty for all offences other than terrorism related offences. The Commission accordingly recommends that the death penalty be abolished for all crimes other than terrorism related offences and waging war.” (p. 226)

The inconsistencies and vagaries in the application of law need no further elaboration. It is a systemic failure and needs systemic correction. Is it time the death sentence is abolished for all crimes except terror-related cases? The most compelling argument for the abolition of death sentence is that it is irreversible, even if at a later date fresh evidence surfaces to prove the innocence of the accused. It is also advisable to make the definition of ‘life sentence’ not amenable to subjective interpretation. In serious crimes like homicide, a ‘life sentence’ should mean ‘till the normal end of a life, without remission’. In serious crimes against humanity it may be necessary to avoid philosophical distinctions such as whether it is ‘retributive’ or ‘reformative’. The punishment should be seen only as a ‘deterrent’ till such time the society evolves to a level when a further revision could be considered.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Playing God, Ungodly?

How would it be if it were possible to ‘order’ the birth of a baby girl who would grow to be as beautiful as Venus and as intelligent as Marie Curie? Or the birth of a baby boy who would grow to be as handsome as Adonis and as intelligent as Einstein? How would it be if it were possible to choose the colour of the eyes, hair and skin tone? Does the idea sound outré, utopian? Recent scientific advances indicate that the idea of ‘designer babies’ is neither all that outré nor all that utopian. It is a possibility in the not too distant future. It is the ethics of the issue that should worry mankind. Is genetic engineering ethical or even desirable?

Man ‘created’ angels, gods and goddesses in his own image. It is for this reason they are referred to as anthropomorphic gods. In his ‘creation’ man made gods and goddesses the most beautiful creatures; again beauty being a product of his own imagination. The creation of anthropomorphic gods is but an expression of man’s endless quest to replicate nature or improving upon it. It was an enticing subject that drew artistes and scientists alike. In general the artistes were wary of the dangers of replicating or improving upon nature. Here are a few examples. Mary Shelly’s 1918 Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus’ described the horrors that would result in tinkering with nature. So did Aldous Huxley’s dystopian ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and Ken Follett’s science-fiction ‘The Third Twin’ (1996), but to a less horrific degree.

But the scientists would not be deterred. For as long as the history of science could be traced, maverick – for want of a better word – ‘scientists’ in many nations conducted experiments with the objective of transmuting base metals into gold, to find a universal solvent and to find a potion that would extend longevity. The ‘scientists’ were collectively known as alchemists. Although for long they were dismissed as charlatans and although they did not achieve the objectives they set out to do, their work had advanced science as far as the purification of metals.

In recent times genetic engineering has been focusing on four areas of human development. They are muscle enhancement to improve athletic performance; memory enhancement to improve intellectual performance; growth hormone treatment to improve physical stature and selection of sex and genetic traits of children. The selection of sex is already a reality. It must be noted that gender screening tests are illegal in India. There are several companies in the USA which already offer ‘sex selection’ with certain pre-conditions that would preclude its possible misuse. The process/product is offered to only those couples who have one child and who desire to have a child of the opposite sex to ‘balance their families’.

The theory of eugenics is as old as Aristotle. It appears the fourth century BCE philosopher had suggested that ‘men should tie their left testicles prior to intercourse if they wanted a male child’! In ‘The case against perfection: ethics in the age of genetic engineering’ (2007), Michael J. Sandel discussed both the pros and cons of genetic engineering. As societies evolve, old mores give way to new norms. Sandel cites a character from the 1981 British historical film, Chariots of Fire’. It was the story of two athletes, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Prior to 1924, employing professional coaches for training to compete in amateur sport was scoffed at. It was considered ‘ungentlemanly’. Abrahams defied the custom as he felt that it was just a cover for anti-Semitism. The point being made is that today employing coaches is an accepted norm. In fact it is unimaginable for any athlete to go into high level competitions without a personal trainer.

Much of the opposition to genetic engineering stems from the negative connotations associated with eugenics. The objective of eugenics was to increase the proportion of healthy and intelligent individuals in the general population. Conversely the poor and unhealthy were prevented from conceiving by forced sterilisation. It is generally assumed that forced sterilisations as a measure of eugenics were practised only in Nazi Germany. According to a report published in the website PsychCentral.com, by the 1930s thirty states in the USA had sterilisation laws. Between 1927 when Carrie Buck, the first victim of the Virginia sterilisation law was sterilised and the 1970s, 65,000 Americans with ‘mental illness or developmental disabilities’ were sterilised. When the Buck case reached the Supreme Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (See Tartakovsky, Margarita. ‘Eugenics & The Story of Carrie Buck’. July 8, 2018. Accessible from http://bit.ly/2mZHs8Q).

To forestall genetic engineering for ethical considerations amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Scientists believe that the key to finding remedies for diseases like thalassemia and cancer is in genetic engineering.

When the banking industry introduced information technology tools in the 1980s doomsday predictors hollered that it would lead to thousands going out of employment. We live in a world of over the counter (OTC) remedies and food supplements for growth and beauty enhancement. Not an hour passes when we don’t see bamboozling advertisements about them on television. Bariatric surgery and cosmetic surgery for beauty enhancement are fairly common with only the cost being the limiting factor. Would it be the only limiting factor for ‘made to order babies’ too? Or are ethics involved?

Should we in the end accept and live with advances in genetic engineering or heed the warning of Mary Shelly and Aldous Huxley about ‘Promethean hubris’? The last word in the debate is yet to be pronounced!

The article first appeared in TheTimes Of India Blogs 

Monday, September 23, 2019

‘The Fourth Estate’ Not ‘The Almighty’

During much of his current term President Donald Trump had to fight accusations that he had had a secret covenant with the Russians, who helped him rig the 2016 presidential election. There were three prime accusations. The first was that a Russian organisation, ‘Internet Research Agency’ (IRA), which influences poll outcomes through social media campaigns, was deployed to run down his opponent Hilary Clinton and boost his election. The second was more serious and was about a possible hacking of the computers in the Democratic Party election offices by the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. Had this been proven it would have turned out to be not just Trump’s own ‘Watergate’ but far worse! The third was about ‘obstruction of justice’.

This article is not about whether or not President Trump was guilty or not of the misdemeanours he was accused of but about their treatment by the American media. The accusations levelled by Trump’s political rivals were orchestrated by internationally visible sections of the American media like ‘CNN,’ ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’Times’ journalists won two Pulitzer prizes for the ‘Trump-Russia’ stories!

The US Attorney General William Barr appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the allegations.  The report Mueller submitted in March this year did not find any substantive evidence to prove the allegations. As Byron York observed in his September 10, 2019, ‘Washington Examiner’ opinion piece


The story did not end there. Some of The New York Times’ readers and its own staff were not happy. York wrote ‘many on the Left faulted [The New York Times] for being insufficiently anti-Trump! At this point, the issue spilled out of the media domain. It is no more about disseminating information or offering comment, however judgemental could it be. It is now more an ethical dilemma, a reflection of the media scene back home in India. Should a media organisation behave like a consumer goods supplier or restaurateur and cater to the tastes of a consumer – assuming a majority of readers the paper caters to are of a certain political leaning – or remain steadfast to an ideal of sticking to the truth? And remain neutral till the issue is settled one way or the other in the appropriate forums? The Times is now caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis of its own making.

The paper conducted an internal town-hall meeting for its newsroom staff to assuage ruffled feelings. It was necessitated because of an uproar over a headline about the president’s alleged ‘racism’ and tweets from the paper’s staff. ‘Slate’ published a transcript of the recording of the Times’ town-hall meeting edited and curated by Ashley Feinberg. The Times’ Executive Editor, Dean Baquet and Publisher A. G. Sulzberger addressed the meeting.

A defensive Baquet seemed to find fault with the readers. He suddenly remembered that it was not the duty of the media to run political campaigns, but as an independent media hold administrations accountable! He pointed out the obvious: 

“They [the paper’s critics who want Trump’s head] sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president.”  

What should be worrying in this episode is the apparent political conditioning of the staff. Shouldn’t newspaper employees be trained to be neutral observers and faithful reporters rather than political instruments?

Both York and Feinberg felt that Baquet’s remark that “the story changed” was significant. York wonders whether having spent a lot of time and energy on the ‘Trump-Russia’ story (and failed) the Times would spend the next two years on the “Trump-is-a-racist narrative”?

The ‘The Fourth Estate’ in the headline does not refer to Geoffrey Archer’s eponymous novel but to Edmund Burke’s laudatory reference to the press. By the by, Burke’s first three estates, contrary to popular misperception, were ‘the Lords Spiritual’, ‘the Lords Temporal’ and ‘the Commons’.

In Irving Wallace’s brilliant thriller, ‘The Almighty’, the protagonist inherits a newspaper, a fictional rival of ‘The New York Times’. The conditional inheritance stipulates that the paper which was way behind its traditional rival should surpass its circulation for at least one day in the succeeding year. In order to retain ownership, the protagonist recruits a gang of terrorists to stage events and then scoop them as news. He sets himself up as ‘The Almighty’!  

The present media might not go the whole hog to stage terror incidents to scoop stories, but they were, in the past, halfway there. The way they stoked war hysteria for George W. Bush to bomb Iraq in the second gulf war in 2003 to destroy elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was near enough. Are the Times’ and The Washington Post’s anti-Trump campaigns one of a piece with their earlier war campaigns?

The article first appeared in The Times Of India Blogs