On the night of 6 August, a fire broke out in the Viswanathan Chest Hospital—the hospital wing of Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, a post-graduate medical institution maintained by Delhi University and funded entirely by the ministry of health and family welfare. The hospital caters to patients with chest diseases, and its facilities include an intensive care unit with eight beds, which is situated on the first floor of the hospital. The fire broke out in a server room that was located on the ground floor, directly beneath the intensive care unit. Members of the hospital’s medical staff told me that the smoke had spread to the first floor and into the ICU, in which there were six patients undergoing treatment. At least three of them died that night.
The issue of triple talaq has occupied the public consciousness for long—in the past three years, particularly, it has become entangled in the necessity and urgency of reform within the Muslim community. By most measures, the existence of this debate itself is saddening—we are trapped in resolving a medieval question in the twenty-first century, one that even the otherwise retrograde Islamic Republic of Pakistan has dispensed with it. While the judgment that was pronounced on 22 August is celebrated and debated in equal parts, it is important to remember the historical and political context of how triple talaq came to assume this relevance, and its relationship to Muslim appeasement by political parties over the years.
“For the last 70 years, somebody else has been deciding everything for us,” Naresh Chandra Debbarma, the 80-year-old president of Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), told me. I met at Debbarma at his modest house, tucked away in one of the alleys of Old Kalibari road in the Krishna Nagar locality of Agartala. His political party, the IPFT, represents several tribal communities in Tripura and has been leading a movement demanding separate statehood for the region’s tribal communities since 2009. On 10 July, the party launched a blockade in the state that continued for 11 days. “The constitutional rights of tribal communities are ignored. This cannot be allowed anymore,” Debbarma said. “The tribal regions are neglected, while other areas get more resources and better infrastructure facilities. There is no other way out except to provide total autonomy for tribal communities to decide their affairs.”
On 28 August, Jagdish Singh Khehar will turn 65, and, as required by the Constitution, retire from his post as the chief justice of India. Khehar was sworn in as chief justice on 4 January—giving him a less than eight months to serve as India’s premier judicial official. Justice Dipak Misra, currently 63 years of age, will succeed
Khehar. Misra too, will serve for a relatively short while—he turns 65 in October 2018. The terms of India’s chief justices have lasted from several years to mere days—in 2004, S Rajendra Babu held the post for 30 days; Kamal Narain Singh, who ascended to the post in late 1991, held it for 17 days.
Over the years, the retirement age and the length of the term for justices at the apex court, and the chief justice in particular, have been subjects of passionate discussion—while justices are forbidden from practicing law after retirement, they can accept government jobs, or head judicial commissions, among other roles. The lure of post-retirement appointments, some argue
, could influence a judge’s decisions during her tenure.
In October 2015, leading a five-judge bench, Jagdish Singh Khehar—the chief justice of India, who retires on 28 August 2017—struck down the 99th constitutional amendment, which proposed the setting up of a body to make appointments to the high courts and the Supreme Court. This body—the National Judicial Appointments Commission, or the NJAC—would have comprised representatives from the executive and the judiciary, as well as two “eminent persons.” The issue of judicial appointments has a long history—if passed, the NJAC would have replaced the collegium system of appointments, which was laid down by the Supreme Court in 1993. The collegium system gave primacy to the judiciary’s role in the selection of judges, and was viewed by some as a usurpation of power by the judiciary. Until then, appointments to the higher judiciary were made by the president of India, after consultation with the chief justice. In a cover story for the June issue of The Caravan, Atul Dev, a staff writer, noted that “Khehar’s judgment in the NJAC case ensured that, at least for the foreseeable future, power over appointments to the judiciary would remain with the judiciary.”
On 21 February, the English Department at Ramjas College, at Delhi University, and Wordcraft—the college’s literature society—held a seminar titled “Cultures of Protest: A Seminar Exploring Representations of Dissent.” On the day of the event, however, the college became the site for violent altercations
involving students from the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU), Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP)—the student political organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—faculty members and students of Ramjas, and the event’s attendees.
“Destitutes Compound,” a story by Naiyer Masud, is about a young man who leaves his home after an argument with his father. After his only friend dies, the man concludes that it is time for him to return to his family. As he makes preparations for his homecoming, he realises that the children he met when he first arrived at the compound now have greying hair. When he returns, he learns that both his parents have passed away, but an old, blind grandmother still sits in the house’s entrance cracking betel nuts, just as she had when he left. The image of the grandmother rhythmically cracking betel nuts has stayed with me for years. To me, she symbolises time itself, resting still, awaiting our return.
On 31 July, in the Rajya Sabha, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party dropped a key clause in a constitutional amendment bill
that would confer constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) because of an amendment moved by the opposition parties. The opposition moved an amendment to the composition and function of the commission, leaving the government with the choice to either accept the amended clause or drop the clause entirely from the bill. Although several opposition members of the Rajya Sabha
expressed their support for constituting a constitutional body for backward classes, they also argued that the bill diluted the powers of the existing commission and the role of state governments. The NCBC already existed as a statutory body, but the proposed bill would constitute a new commission that would have the status of a constitutional body—on par with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. In an unprecedented vote that effectively rendered the bill redundant, the Rajya Sabha passed the bill without the clause constituting the commission.
On 22 July 1947, the Constituent Assembly of India passed a resolution to assign a national flag to independent India. The resolution was moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, in the form of rousing and emotional speech. Nehru spoke of the decades-long struggle for freedom, and added that though an outcome would soon be realised in the form of Independence, it had not yet concluded. “There will be no complete freedom as long as there is starvation, hunger, lack of clothing, lack of necessaries of life and lack of opportunity of growth for every single human being, man, woman and child in the country,” he said. “We aim at that.” In spite of these challenges, Nehru said, “It is in no spirit of down heartedness that I stand up … It is right and proper that at this moment we should adopt the symbols of this achievement.”
Nayanjot Lahiri is a professor of history at Ashoka University, and the author of books such as Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories (2012) and Ashoka in Ancient India (2015). In her latest book, Monuments Matter: India’s Archeological Heritage Since Independence, Lahiri conducts a broad survey of the archaeological work that has taken place in India since 1947. She discusses the impact that Partition had on Indian monuments and the nature of archaeological research, as well as its evolution since then. She further examines roles played by prime ministers, statesmen, legislations and judicial interventions in preserving Indian heritage. Lahiri looks closely at the Archaeological Survey of India, and how it is intertwined with these subjects. First constituted in undivided India in 1861, the ASI—presently under the ministry of culture—is the apex body for preservation of monuments and archaeological artefacts today. An excerpt from Lahiri’s book can be read here
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