The Supreme Court began 2017 with its judgment in the case of Abhiram Singh vs CD Commachen. In a split verdict, a four-judge majority of a seven-judge bench ruled that electoral candidates cannot appeal to voters on the grounds of—either their or the electorate’s—religion, race, caste, community or language. The stakes for the case were high. Justice TS Thakur, who was the chief justice of India at the time, delivered one of the three majority opinions. For him, this case was clearly a matter of legacy—it was one of the last major cases he would decide as chief justice. The timing of the case was also significant. The growing anxieties about the role of religious identity in national and regional politics are bound to intensify in the upcoming state elections. Among the polarised reactions to the judgment were those who saw it as undermining divisive political rhetoric
, while others expressed concerns about how it would suppress the politics of the marginalised
. But each of these responses may be overplaying the actual legal and political implications of the case.
Discontent first began brewing among the villagers of Bhangar II block at West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district in late 2016. In January 2017, it escalated into a violent clash. Bhangar II—which comprises 60 villages
, of which 16 are involved in the agitation—is located approximately 35 kilometres from the state’s capital, Kolkata. On 17 January, hundreds of people from Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona and Gaazipur villages, which fall under the Polerhat II gram panchayat in Bhangar II—also a part of the Bhangar assembly constituency—protested the acquisition of their land for the construction of a power grid project. They blocked roads with the trunks of trees they had uprooted, set fire to police vans, brandished lathis, pelted stones, attacked police officers and broke the windscreens of police vehicles. The police, in turn, retaliated by wielding lathis of their own and using teargas shells against the protestors. Two young men, Mofijul Khan and Alam Mollah, were shot dead amid the chaos that ensued. The police have denied responsibility, claiming that they did not open fire. According to Anuj Sharma, the inspector general of police (law and order), some outsiders entered the area and fired at the villagers. “We are investigating as to who these outsiders are,” Sharma said. “The idea was to provoke police and to create a situation which would put the government in difficulty,” another senior officer told me.
On 5 January 2017, a division bench of the joint high court for the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh pronounced a judgement
barring the use of Government Order 123, or GO123, a notification issued by the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government in July 2015. A short, two-page order
, the GO123 allowed the government to purchase land from “willing land owners” for any purpose, including development projects. It directed that a district-level land-procurement committee be set up to negotiate with the landowners. The GO123 stated that this committee could settle on a compensation amount based on the value of the land, perceived loss of livelihood, the cost required for rehabilitation and resettlement of the land owners “and others”—although it did not specify who this might include.
Since the Aadhaar programme, which aims to provide Indian citizens with unique identification numbers, was launched in 2009, several petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court that oppose its application by the government. These petitions have challenged the Aadhaar programme on various grounds: the government’s right to ask the citizens to provide biometric data for Aadhaar verification without adequate safeguards against its potential misuse
; the legality of the mass collection of data
; and whether having an Aadhaar number can be made mandatory for availing benefits from state welfare schemes. The court has ruled on several petitions that question the linking of Aadhaar to state programmes: it has repeatedly said that the Aadhaar card cannot be made a mandatory requirement to avail government services, benefits and subsidies.
On 7 November 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi “adopted” the village of Jayapur under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana
—a rural development project that he had launched in October that year. Located around 30 kilometres away from Varanasi, Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Jayapur, according to the census report of 2011
, is home to 2,974 residents. In April 2014, a month before he was elected prime minister, a high tension electric line had fallen in the village, injuring four people. Irked by the time it took for the authorities to reach the village, Modi noted on Twitter
that it was “disturbing to know that the injured did not get timely medical attention.” Seven months later, as he announced his decision to take the village under his wings, the prime minister assured the villagers that they would develop a “new Jayapur” together and added, “An MP does not adopt a village. A village adopts an MP.”
The Shiromani Akali Dal-led state government in Punjab has been embroiled in controversy since November 2013, when key players in the synthetic-drug trade were arrested by the Punjab police. The arrested persons had alluded to the involvement of the state cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, the brother-in-law of the Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, specifically naming him for his role in facilitating connections for the trade. However, even as the allegations against Majithia increased, the investigation of the case lost its momentum by 2015.
In their book, Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, Warisha Farasat, a lawyer practising in Delhi, and Prita Jha, a legal activist and researcher based in Ahmedabad, closely examine the state’s accountability in two instances of mass communal violence. The first occurred in 1989, in Bhagalpur district in Bihar, when clashes between Hindus and Muslims continued for over two months, resulting in nearly 1,000 deaths, of which over 900 were Muslims. The second was the Gujarat riots of 2002, when Hindu mobs led attacks on Muslims in the state, resulting in the deaths of close to 1,100 people, including nearly 800 Muslims and over 250 Hindus. “A recurring feature of such episodes of bloodletting is that elected and selected public officials fail to uphold their most sacred constitutional duty—to provide equal protection to every citizen,” write Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh in their introduction to the book. Mander is an activist and writer who works with victims of mass violence and the director of the Centre for Equity Studies, and Singh is a senior officer with the Canada-based International Research Development Centre. “They fail not because they lack the mandate, authority or legal powers. They fail because they choose to, because of the pervasive prejudice and bias against these disadvantaged groups that permeates large segments of the police, magistracy, judiciary and the political class.” Splintered Justice builds upon the findings of a 2014 book, On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India, in which scholars from the CES collated information they had gathered, through RTIs and extensive study of case files, on various incidents of mass violence in India.
On 7 January 2017, the Constitution Club of India, in Delhi, played host to the Kashmiri Students’ Conference. The press kit for the event described it as “a dialogue on students’ role in nation building.” It was organised by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), the Muslim wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The MRM was formed in 2002, and identifies itself as “an Indian nationalist Muslim organisation.” In the past, the organisation has campaigned to scrap Article 370 from the constitution—which grants autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir—impose a uniform civil code, and to organise Muslims to join the fight against cow slaughter.
On 6 January 2017, the Delhi High Court gave the Industrial Tribunal, an independent tribunal that hears matters related to employment, the go-ahead for proceeding with its hearing on a case related to complaints of sexual harassment against RK Pachauri, the former director general of the The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based think tank. In February 2015, a 29-year-old researcher formerly employed with TERI filed a first information report against Pachauri. She alleged that Pachauri had subjected her to “repeated and constant requests to have a romantic and physical relationship,” and that despite having repeatedly told him that she was not interested, “he refused to give up.” She alleged that he had also physically harassed her, and had forcibly touched and grabbed her. When she confronted Pachauri about her objection to his actions, she said, he had threatened that he would “not give me any more work in his office and that I should leave TERI or he will transfer me to some other division.” The case made global headlines, owing to Pachauri’s reputation as a world leader in drawing attention to climate change. After the first complainant registered her complaint, two other women, both former employees of TERI, came forward and released public statements about facing sexual harassment at Pachauri’s hands. Before she filed a complaint with the police, the former researcher had also filed a complaint with TERI’s internal complaints committee, a body mandated by law to investigate complaints of sexual harassment in workplaces. In May 2015, after the ICC filed its report, Pachauri registered a case with the Industrial Tribunal, alleging that the ICC had “withheld anonymous statements from unknown witnesses and rushed the enquiry.”
On 3 January 2017, the Indian Science Congress Association awarded
the Millennium Plaque of Honour to Appa Rao Podile, the vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad. The Millennium Plaque of Honour is awarded to two eminent scientists every year along with a cash award of Rs 20,000. Podile received the award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inaugural session of the one-hundred-fourth annual meeting of the ISCA in Tirupati, reportedly for his contribution in the fields of bio-technology and higher education. Three students of the University of Hyderabad, Dontha Prashanth, Seshu Chemudugunta and Vijay Pedapudi, have reportedly
released a statement condemning the award. The students alleged that Podile is a “stooge” of the Bharatiya Janata Party, “a proven plagiarist,” and a “disgrace to the scientific community.”