Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Meaningful Rakhi Gift

 The Statesman, July 31 2020

The much-celebrated occasion of Raksha Bandhan is around the corner. This used to generate considerable excitement when we were young. We made rakhis with Anchor thread and brushed them with used toothbrushes until the thread fibres shone.We then braided little beads onto the two side threads left long to tie them around our brothers’ wrists. Brothers busied themselves selecting the most thoughtful and appropriate gifts for their sisters. Rakhi highlights the strong and enduring bond between siblings. Sometime ago, someone asked me what the best gift was a brother could give a sister.

I felt the best gift was for the brother to truly understand his sister. I thought that one of the best ways in which this could be achieved was for the brother to step into his sister’s shoes for that day. To undertake the daily chores she does, visit the places she visits and so on.

Today, I feel the brother can go one step further and intervene to ensure that his cheerful, sprightly sister has a bright and safe future. He can oppose his sister’s child marriage with all his heart if he encounters it. If his affirmative action helps his sister to continue to enjoy her childhood, complete her education and be saved from the stress and physical danger of a teenage pregnancy, there can be no greater gift. Child marriage is a rampant social evil that has destroyed many young childhoods that should ideally have been spent in pursuit of knowledge and in gaining confidence.

Globally, in around 21 per cent of marriages, girls have been married off before the age of 18 – that is about 650 million girls. Out of these about 250 million were married even before the age of 15. One third of the child brides in the world reside in India. Though the scourge of child marriage affects both girls and boys, the proportion of boys is far lower. The median age of marriage of a girl in India is 16.8 years (much below the legal age of marriage for girls which is eighteen years), while that of boys is 22.6 years (which is higher than their legal age of marriage, twenty one years).

Though cognizant of the complex social pressures including poverty, lack of physical safety and many others that compel people especially in rural areas to marry off their daughters early, I feel the human price of doing this is paradoxically far steeper. The deaths due to teenage pregnancy are two times higher in girls aged less than 18 years and three times higher in under 15- year-old mothers. Though our country is showing a slight dip in maternal mortality in the last decade from 130 per 100000 in 2014 to 122 in 2017, this figure is still unacceptably high. Pregnancy-related complications are the cause of the greatest number of deaths of girls in the age group 15-19 years. Poignantly, that is the very age when young children are deciding their futures and what they dream of achieving in life.

To have your childhood abruptly cut short because of a forced marriage and then to have your life cut short because of pregnancy complications seems a tragic waste of potential. Apart from outright mortality, many girls are left with permanent damage to their pelvic areas or urinary systems from the ravages of pregnancy on such a young body. This makes them have permanently morbid conditions for the long term and contributes to a lack of self -confidence. Not only is the mother’s health at risk, but the babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to be preterm, of low birth weight, or stillborn. They also have a higher morbidity and mortality rate. It is estimated that 15 to 18 per cent of children born worldwide have low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg) representing more than 20 million births a year.

India has the highest number of pre-term babies in the world – about 25 per cent of the overall share. Over 25 million babies are born annually in India and about 1.7 million have low birth weight – below 2.5 kg – and 0.4 million have very low birth weight – below 1.5 kg. Several articles in peer-reviewed journals provide data establishing that the young age of mothers – less than 20 years and low birth weight of mothers – BMI < 18.5 per cent were both risk factors (National Family Health Surveys of India) for low birth weight babies. Low birth weight and prematurity are associated with higher rates of stunted growth, chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in later life and neurological problems relating to cognition and neurodegeneration.Such children are also at risk of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding condition.

Prematurity is a leading contributor to neonatal mortality. India’s own infant mortality rate is 32/1000 live births (2018). Low birth weight babies are 40 times more likely to die in the first month of life. Thus, we can see that babies born to teenage mothers start life with a huge disadvantage. There are other social implications. Reports such as the 2006 one by International Centre for Research on Women highlighted that girls married under the age of 18 were twice as likely to be physically assaulted by their spouses and to feel that this was justified. The study of psychology tells us that children tend to internalize the blame for events around them. If a child bride who is mentally immature decides to take upon herself the blame for being beaten by her spouse or the ill health or low IQ of her child, you can imagine the mental stresses she would be living with for a lifetime.She and her spouse would also not be in a strong position to bring up their children well, if they are young and inexperienced about life. 

The UN World Health Assembly goal is to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in the number of infants born with a weight lower than 2500 g by the year 2025. Reducing the number of child marriages will be a powerful way to achieve this goal. It will also pave the way for gender equality.

 In 2017, a small group of social activists including myself had worked on a PIL on equal age of marriage for girls and boys (which currently stands at a differential of 18 years for the girl and 21 years for the boy respectively), since the Constitution recognizes all citizens as equal. The exact age would be the decision of medical experts and child rights activists who understand the deeper nuances. But having an equal age (whatever it may be) would shift the mindset away from child brides for older men. Though ultimately our PIL did not come up for discussion for reasons outside our control; a ray of hope is that recently the Union government has constituted a task force to examine the issue of child marriage. It could either support the NGOs dedicatedly working in the field of child marriage for several years or else, working jointly with them, come up with an effective solution to curb child marriage. This would address a multitude of issues in one stroke – overpopulation, illiteracy, gender related disadvantages such as domestic violence and wage gap.

So, awaken brothers! If you can picture your smiling and carefree sister, whom you played with lovingly as a child, turning into a mental and physical wreck because of a forced early marriage, it should bother you greatly. This Raksha Bandhan, give your sister a gift born out of deep courage and love. Do all in your power to prevent her from getting married before the legal age of 18. Gift her your unconditional support to realize her full potential.

(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)


Monday, July 20, 2020

The virus that won’t go away

The Statesman, 10 July

The ‘new normal’ is a term we often see used in journalistic writing nowadays. It pertains to the drastic changes in lifestyle and work pattern brought about by the corona pandemic. There is one area though, where another pernicious virus lurks that is fairly resistant to eradication – the virus of disparity between the genders.
Across diverse fields, women have been judged harshly, have had to struggle harder and have been compensated less for the same amount of work.

Consider sports. Several youngsters, like my son, enjoy playing and watching basketball. Though there are slight differences in the game for women and men, such as the ball size and the distance of the free throw circle etc., the hoop height from the ground is the same – ten feet. A fancy trick in basketball is ‘dunking’ where the player jumps up and literally slams the basketball into the hoop. More men are able to dunk than women. Their games attract more audiences. Is it because women have less sporting ability? Not so. It is because the courts and hoop heights are designed keeping the average male height in mind. Ideally the hoops should be higher for men, given that the average male height across countries is more than that of their female counterparts.For example, in 2020, the average male height in the USA is 175.3 cm and the average female height is 161.5 cm and in India it is 166.3 cm and 152.6 cm respectively. This difference holds across all countries and is significant. Though allowances are made for male competitors with lower weight categories in certain sports, this thinking has not extended fully to factoring in gender. Structural parameters remain the same whether it is swimming pools or games courts or hoop heights.
Women earn less in sports events partly because they are judged on standards calculated for masculine weight and height. While this has probably caused them to excel more, the talent required to do this has not been well acknowledged. 

In the armed services, there are ongoing discussions on whether women are fit for actual combat roles or not. There is no doubt they are. With the sophisticated weaponry available, one doesn’t necessarily have to be physically very strong to handle it, though strength may be a desirable asset otherwise. Good, sharp reflexes and training are what is needed. The issues are actually more about logistics and additional infrastructure that the military will have to provide along with the patriarchal reluctance to taking orders from a woman.

To understand this argument better, one need only to look at rural areas where women do considerable heavy lifting, be it lugging water, grass or firewood. They carry enormous bundles on their heads. This has not changed even now, when many men are present at home. Men rarely lend a hand with these demanding physical chores in their own homes. If women can be relied upon to do the heavy lifting of several kilograms at home, why cannot they be entrusted with lighter rifles? 

The bias against women has crept in a little into our laws. If we see the debate raging around abortion we find that the legal system chiefly focuses on ‘independent rights of a foetus’ versus the mother’s right over her own body.
Why should the advocates of a foetus’ independent right to life not debate equally energetically its right to enjoy the lifelong protection and financial assistance of its father as well? Why is the concern and care limited largely to its being born? Even in the case of unwed parents, there are laws in some states that accord the biological fathers some custodial rights over the child though he is not married to the child’s mother. Conversely, however, on the subject of abandonment of the family by the biological father, the onus rests on the spouse to file a specific case. My daughter, a law student, shared some research on how mothers are even retrospectively made accountable to the foetus in some cases in USA and elsewhere. In the Grodin vs Grodin case from the Michigan court of appeals in 1980 for example, there was an attempt by the child to hold the mother liable for taking Tetracycline antibiotic (prescribed by her doctor) during pregnancy which caused the child’s teeth to become discoloured as a result.
There are thus people who seek to curtail a woman’s rights over her own body, snatch away her privacy and her choices and even cast aspersion on the legendary maternal instinct she shares with the members of her sex. Meanwhile, there is scant debate on the responsibility of older males producing children, even when medical journals inform us that the offspring of older fathers (more than 35 years of age) have reduced fertility and an increased risk of birth defects, some cancers, and schizophrenia. Instead, of being held negligent in any way, men are lauded for their ‘virility’ even at an old age.

The legal system thus does not seem to pin equal responsibility on the father as a parent. The norms of society end up placing additional stresses on women at the most vulnerable period of their lives – during pregnancy. A woman may be battling daily fatigue and nausea. The nearest good quality gynecological care may be available only very far away. The woman is often not supported with help in daily chores or ensuring she has the best nutrition. Sometimes, she is even blamed for being careless if she accidentally slips or gets hurt. Far less emphasis is laid on the conduct of the father in maintaining a peaceful and harmonious environment at home during the pregnancy. At work, women lose out on wages and career growth when they exceed the stipulated period of maternity leave. Why can’t the government make it a point to create adequate jobs that women can execute from home? Why must women pay a heavier economic price than men for the privilege of parenthood?

 Recently, there was a case of a pregnant student activist seeking bail. Pregnancy was not accorded a special ground for consideration of temporary bail for her. It is well established that pregnancy can carry risks to the life of the mother and needs special care. This is reflected in many areas; insurance companies do not agree to new insurance for a pregnant woman till after the post-delivery discharge; pharmaceutical companies clearly state on drug labels whether a drug will harm the foetus if taken during pregnancy etc. When the welfare of companies and fetuses can be factored in, why must women have to fight for concessions for themselves before the judiciary?

We must recognize all these prevalent subtle and overt biases if we seek to establish a holistic ‘new normal’ way of life that is equitable. Will the ongoing pursuits of those working towards gender equality slowly usher in a more just ‘new normal’ or will it need the advent of a magic vaccine? Without factoring in the critical aspect of gender, we will simply be lurching from one abnormal state to another.

(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Ambrosia or a sip of destruction?

The Statesman , Tuesday  12 May
Alcohol, which was in the news recently when liquor shops re-opened after a gap, has been central to human existence since ancient times. The Egyptians indulged in wine making and the Greeks had a deity for wine - Dionysus. Old ethnic groups had their own sacred drinks. The Mayans had their Balche’ and the Voodoo religion, its Clairin. Special herb-infused drinks were used to cure anything from sore throats to back aches. The significance of spirits has not lessened over the ages.
As curious youngsters we pleaded with our parents to allow us to have one sip from their glass of liquor. More often than not, when teenagers did get to have that first sip, it was a disappointing anti-climax. Most would screw up their noses in disgust and feel extremely cheated. Thus we became acquainted with the meaning of the phrase ‘it is an acquired taste’.
I ventured beyond a sip, to my very own first glass, when I joined medical college. In a celebratory mood on my birthday, we went to dine and drink at a local restaurant. One friend kept me company and the other girl declined saying someone had to look after the first two!
Apart from sampling it, we students learnt about alcohol and its effects in our pharmacology class. A pharmacology textbook authored by Lawrence gave one of the most memorable charts depicting the effects of alcohol through a series of funny drawings.  I can still recall the property of ‘easy distractibility’ depicted by a car driver driving with his face turned sideways, looking at a lady on the  pavement even while a pole looms in front . Or of ‘over cautiousness’– where our friend in the car simply refuses to overtake a slow animal-drawn cart. Shakespeare too has painted a vivid picture of the effects of drink in his play Macbeth. A character notes that it provokes ‘nose painting’, ‘sleep’ and ‘urine’. The nose painting likely alludes to a facial flushing seen in some who have a greater sensitivity to the effects of alcohol. 
During our medical education we learnt how alcohol induces poor motor coordination, impaired judgment and drowsiness. Regular alcohol consumption is causally related to several medical conditions such as hypertension, vitamin B12 deficiency, hand tremors, liver cirrhosis, and pancreatitis among a long list. Some of these can be attributed to increased cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the blood. In Forensic medicine, we learnt about how crude alcohol containing methanol caused acute swelling of the optic nerve and induced the sudden blindness we would read about in the papers after spurious liquor had been consumed. We discovered that there are two main categories of alcohols here - local country liquors like Arrack, Tharra, Daru etc. and the Indian made foreign liquors (whisky, rum and such - apart from the directly imported foreign) and of course illegally fabricated drinks which could be anything! Much later during post graduation we learnt of the effects of alcohol on the eyes such as possible accelerated age related macular changes, and changes to the nerve–tobacco and alcohol related amblyopias.
Alcohol is a substance which can induce addiction. Signs of chronic alcohol dependency, as distinct from its repeated abuse (which may have social, medical, or judicial consequences) are many (eleven criteria in the DSM book) and include: increased tolerance to alcohol (greater quantity required to achieve the same effect), impaired control over drinking and drinking despite adverse effects relating to work, relationships or health. A reformed alcohol addict from a de-addiction centre was invited to our college to speak and discourage students from travelling down the path of addiction. He narrated his story in a lively manner, using English words matching the proficiency of an Oxford don. The most important word of course was ‘sobriety’.
We students also gained a firsthand account of alcohol abuse from one of our bais (house- keeper) in the hostel. She worked very hard to nurture and educate her family, but was often waylaid by her unemployed husband who made off with her salary to buy alcohol and frequently ended up drunk.
Later, as interns, we attended to victims of road traffic accidents brought on by the excesses of alcohol. Apart from enhanced recklessness, alcohol seemed to bring on a flood of emotions as well. I vividly remember how copiously some of them would weep if we scolded them about drunk driving, after tending to their wounds. A recent study in The Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research (July 2015) tells us that of 200 drivers in a hospital in northwestern India who reported to the trauma emergency services, 54% had medical evidence of substance abuse and in 40% of cases the substance was alcohol.
Our army life found us with easy access to liquor. Some traditions included alcohol as part of the proceedings – such as drinking beer with the junior commissioned officers (JCOs) on Holi or newly promoted officers drinking from a chalice filled with alcohol into which their brand new pips had earlier been submerged. Being able to hold one’s drink was considered a coveted ability.
The associations continued in civil life. We enjoyed Urdu poetry where wine has always been an important topic. A gamut of emotions was linked to wine drinking – it was a refuge from unrequited love, it induced euphoria, and sometimes a welcome oblivion. Bars were described as extremely inclusive spaces. A memorable evening of Sufi music left an indelible imprint on my young mind. One of the song couplets which received thunderous applause from the audience translated as “People construct houses of worship…then set about excluding folks from them. Hindus are declared infidels at mosques. Muslims are declared infidels at temples. It is suggested that instead of building these houses of worship, build liquor bars (maikhanas) as they are the most inclusive places. At these, even infidels are not considered infidels.”Poetry clearly extolled the virtues of drinking.
Real life was a different story. Our work with the gender and social aspects of medicine helped us become more aware of the widespread impact of alcohol on domestic violence. Many studies linking alcohol to intimate partner violence are reported in well-respected journals which publish on alcoholism, family, psychology and interpersonal violence. A study by Carol Cunradi et al in 2009 of over 800 male and female industrial workers in the Journal of Family violence, reiterated this association between drinking and intimate partner violence for both male and female workers and additionally highlighted that male unemployment played a significant role as well.
Fast forward to recent news pertaining to alcohol - we saw long lines waiting to buy alcohol, largely without distancing or police supervision. The stated aim was to revive the economy through the sale of liquor. This however, is a moot point. Is this the ideal time to open liquor shops? Should economic revival be based on encouraging a habit which could later lead to addiction? A heavy drinker tends to suffer from poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Added to this is the current spike in unemployment, relative starvation of many, and domestic violence at a high peak .Is it not the need of the hour to operate with caution and safeguards when introducing another element, that is alcohol - into this potent brew of uncertainties prevailing during this Corona pandemic? 

Friday, April 10, 2020

To Post or not to Post

 The Statesman 2 April 2020

(This article examines the dilemma of numerous posts on Corona Virus - is it a boon or a bane?)

'To post or not to post’ seems to be the collective mental dilemma of the present time. A strong case has been made for staying away from the huge overload of information related to the Coronavirus. Conspiracy theories abound about its origin and spread. Well known personalities have advocated not thinking about or discussing the virus for some amount of time. Yet others insist it takes a toll on our mental health and can induce unnecessary panic. There are concerns about the authenticity of some posts. Many wise folks rightfully point out this is an excellent time to ‘look within’
My point of view is to have a continued conversation on the subject. Here’s why I think this is a good idea.

Corona virus posts/articles encourage discourse in real time. In this uncertain and rapidly unfolding situation, we don’t have the luxury of formal medical trials with long - term follow up results. All that we can bank on right now is an exchange of medical information, experiences, and ideas of those countries that have had a head start on having had to grapple with the disease. As a professor from AIIMS said ‘there is more learning in the corridors of the science department than in the laboratories’. He was alluding to the discussions between colleagues as they passed each other in the hallways, picking each others’ brains or offering solutions. It is well known that universities acquire their reputation not only from the infrastructure and staff but largely from the students they attract. Prospective pupils know that much of their learning will be from the animated brainstorming with their bright, talented peers. In a rapidly evolving, global and complex medical situation, it makes a lot of sense to communicate in all spheres - medical, social, civil; to ensure better coordination and allotment of resources. While doctors are exchanging medical information on treatments and susceptibility to the disease (older age groups are more vulnerable than younger people), geography and climate; epidemiologists, social scientists and economists among others are analyzing how and why the virus has travelled faster to some countries but not others. Technology and textile companies are focusing on equipment supply and upgrades. Successful state and country models are being highlighted.

There are posts which suggest radical conspiracy theories. People delight in being the first ones to post new and sensational information in their respective online groups. This raises eyebrows and can also inflame passions and stress. These posts, however, serve a very useful purpose. To be able to accept or reject the allegation prompts one to search for the truth and a lot of useful data is put out that can help one make up one’s own mind. There are the various conspiracy theories surrounding the virus’s country of origin, China, especially the nature of its origin. Whereas some feel it was due to cross contamination from Pangolin or bat viruses from China’s wet market, (there a lot of live fish and animals are in captivity prior to being slaughtered and sold)                                                                                                                                                             others talk about the viral research laboratory in Wuhan. For example, a published article (authored by scientists from Wuhan Institute of Virology, Universities in Shanghai and Peking and Australian Animal Health Laboratory) in the Journal of Virology , as early as Feb 2008 describes the successful experimental exchange of viral nuclear material between a SARS human infecting virus and the Corona, Horseshoe bat infecting virus. 

Due to the lockdown and the important role of social distancing in breaking the chain of virus transmission, people are confined to their homes. There are some who live alone. Many need to talk about this overwhelming experience with others and understand how they are coping. Some people relieve their isolation by following up on posts related to the virus and some people their fear. I followed a thread on Twitter where a health professional wanted to know how patients, who reached the respirator stage, fared. Several doctors from across the world shared their experiences which left her feeling more reassured. Posing questions, sharing apprehensions and interacting gives people the sense that they are all together experiencing this challenge. No one needs to face it alone.

For all the accurate statistics and real life video shared by recuperating patients that may induce a sense of fear, there also abound many uplifting messages. Some of the spiritual messages talk of how the Coronavirus is a positive force, compelling us to reprioritize our lives. Messages encourage us to build our innate immunity; they underline how deeply connected we are-literally our lives are in each other’s hands. Wildlife enthusiasts are posting wonderful pictures of how animals are seen in larger numbers, now that humans have receded from many common natural spaces. Contact numbers of government shelters/ NGOs distributing food or collecting donations are shared. Doctors who are working long shifts without breaks are sharing their experiences and drawing their energy from the overwhelming support and gratitude they receive on their timelines. Due to a high transmission risk through doctors and hospitals as well as an enlightened decision to channelize medical resources towards COVID and emergencies, routine OPDs have been closed down in many countries. Doctors who are temporarily at home (or working in shifts) keep abreast on the disease through media and personal communication. A medical colleague told me how she is enjoying surfing through messages and savouring the ones that really appeal to her. 

Moreover, diversity of opinion on any subject is very important. For global issues like climate change and the Corona scourge among others, people largely hear the political viewpoint as the official one. But how a politician looks at a scientific subject is vastly different from how a healthcare official or a scientist or even a patient views it. Myriad perspectives help create a holistic picture in our minds. Political announcements, though relevant as they outline the overall picture, don’t tell us the minutiae. We decidedly need other voices to fill the gaps.

We can either look the problem squarely in the face and not get intimidated by the news surrounding it or we can choose to bury our heads in the sand much like the ostrich and just hope that it will blow over. Will it create a panic? It is difficult to say. As a family member pointed out - many people in our country have a fatalistic attitude and believe in destiny. Such people are not likely to panic easily. Also there are controversies about fake and real posts. To clarify, one can check the source (e.g. standard E newspaper sites should be reliable) or references, as well as rely on posts of known people (those you know personally sharing their experiences or opinion) or verified handles.

For those who are as overwhelmed by the posts around the virus as they are by the virus itself, they can just switch off from the welter of information. They can do so secure in the knowledge that if they feel like connecting to their wider ‘family’ in the world at any time, all it takes is the tap of a button.

The Perception of Sedition

 The Statesman 26 February 2020

A recent occurrence at a public event in Bengaluru caught the attention of many. The video showed a young teenager standing on the stage saying something and the very next minute she was being manhandled by a large number of the men on stage who towered over her. The plucky teenager seemed undaunted and kept trying to grab back the mike to continue speaking, but was overwhelmed by the sea of swarthy men jostling her, snatching the mike away, till finally she was led off the stage by uniformed policemen.

As a woman, I was dumbfounded at watching fellow speakers on the dais physically bully this young girl. On paying greater attention to details, it seems that the teenager, 18-year old Amulya Leona, had chanted “Pakistan Zindabad” at the commencement of her speech. Several people took umbrage to that. The politician who was hosting the show was worried that it would go against his patriotic image. She shouted out “Hindustan Zindabad” a couple of times thereafter and some on the stage joined in the chorus. I later learnt that she has been booked for sedition under section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. I was stunned for many reasons.

If a young girl’s statement could be quoted out of context (it seems she was advocating peace amongst all the neighbours in the Indian subcontinent and celebrating these neighbours) and she could be arrested for that, it didn’t augur well. In all our teachings in school and the answers we have written in exams till date, one is always asked to provide a background before embarking on the answer. In her case, the context was blithely ignored.

If merely voicing the name of a neighbouring country attracts arrest, then what of Indian officials who have engaged with our neighbour at various levels of cultural exchanges and overt as well as backdoor diplomacy? What of controversial TV anchors who invite Pakistani nationals on their prime time programmes to get the views of both sides or even just to increase TRP ratings? Here they are going one step ahead and actually engaging with Pakistani citizens. Would that attract harsher punishment under ‘advanced sedition’?

In the current Indian scenario if we take the literal definition of sedition ‘incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority’ into account, then many people in authority would themselves be guilty. For, in our country, the main authority is actually the Constitution of India. Those who try to undermine it or dilute its spirit in a big way are the ones actually indulging in sedition. What of politicians who destabilize state governments by luring parliamentarians this way or that by offers of money? Doesn’t tampering with lawfully elected state authority fall into the actual realm of this definition? The teenager’s sloganeering did not represent disaffection with the Indian or any government for that matter (as she broadly invoked the names of countries), no force was used, nor did her words incite anyone except a handful of burly males sharing the dais with her to push her off it! If anything, friendly relations with the neighbouring state were promoted as we are not currently at war with any state. The teenager was merely exercising her right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian constitution. Some may find her plucky and some consider her a nuisance. But she is clearly not jail material.

Keeping our country’s history in perspective, many families in North India have elderly members who were born on the Pakistan side of undivided India. The Freedom struggle gained us our independence in 1947, but political circumstances led to the painful and violent partition into two countries. Many elected to come to the Indian side of the fence and many were caught unawares as they were holidaying here. Despite the traumatic turn of events, members of both these groups speak warmly and nostalgically of their childhoods and the neighbourhoods they grew up in. My father was born and brought up in a place called PakPatan, district Montgomery, undivided India. At a change of guard ceremony at the Wagah border, my mother-in-law looked longingly across and said that Lahore is less than 30 km away - so near yet so far! Is it possible to hate the land of your parents’ birth? So what if different people live in that place now? Just like an old house you loved and lived in when you were young (hear the nostalgic ‘the house that built me’ by country singer Tanya Tucker to understand what I mean) remains in your memory no matter who the new tenant may be. Wanting to revert to an old status quo of peace certainly doesn’t seem to amount to sedition.

At a global level, the United Nations was formed with the chief objective of promoting world peace and security and friendly relations between countries. Respected dignitaries the world over offer to broker peace between warring nations in strife torn, volatile regions. The celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore tried to elegantly uplift our thoughts above the confining boundaries of geographical regions and an aggressive nationalism which eroded our sense of a larger humanity. This is also reflected in the Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam. If the people who inhabit countries at war don’t want to have their lifetimes defined by mortar, shelling and hatred, would we call them reasonable and sane or a seditious bunch? 

India is a signatory to the the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which exists to ensure the protection of civil and political rights of citizens. It includes the right to freedom of thought (Article 18) holding one’s own opinions and expressing them (Article 19). Article 15 also suggests that ‘no one can be guilty of an act of criminal offence which did not constitute a criminal offence’! 

Whether the sedition law itself is even necessary is a moot point. The judiciary has thus far been inclined to safeguard the freedom of speech of the Indian citizens in almost all their judgments. It is clear that if one’s thoughts are not in consonance with those of the government of the day it does not amount to sedition. The Indian Law Commissions recommendation of 2018 was to invite a greater public debate on it and amend it to make it more citizen friendly. This law was put in place by the British to keep us ‘natives’ in our place and safeguard the authority of their colonial rule. Freedom fighters that attracted the sedition laws in the pre-independence era included JC Bose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically the British do not have such a law in their own constitution. The post-independence list of those booked under sedition law in India includes writers, thinkers and all manner of citizens, only a few of whom were actually declared guilty.

If we aspire to be a great democracy, we must support the building blocks that go into its making, especially free speech and thinking. Attempting to jail a young girl for reasons that are not compelling does greater damage to our standing as a democracy than to her.