India at 75: Epochal moments post 2010

The demonetisation saga, a Kashmir divided, and the farmers’ agitation.

Published : Aug 20, 2022 17:26 IST

Mary Kom at the London Olympics.

Mary Kom at the London Olympics. | Photo Credit: PTI

2012: Mary Kom wins Olympic medal

Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, better known as Mary Kom, had already become a sporting legend in India before winning an Olympic medal in boxing in 2012. She was a five-time AIBA World Amateur Boxing Champion, a four-time Asian Women’s champion, and a bronze medallist in the 2010 Asian Games in China. She had also won the Witch Cup (2002) in Hungary, the Woman’s World Cup (2004) in Norway, the Venus World Cup (2006) in Denmark, the Asian Indoor Games (2009) in Vietnam, and the Asian Women’s Cup (2011) in China.

But it was the bronze at the London Olympics in 2012—the first time that women’s boxing was included in the Games—that made Mary Kom a global phenomenon, the one who put women’s boxing in India on the international map. In fact, she is practically India’s global ambassador for the sport and has been an inspiration for girls across the world to take up boxing.

The 2012 AIBA World Boxing Championship was also a qualifier for the 2012 Olympics. Mary Kom, who was used to fighting in the 46- and 48-kg weight categories, had to move up to the flyweight category (51 kg) as the rules allowed only three categories: flyweight, lightweight (60 kg) and middleweight (75 kg). She won the bronze in the World Boxing championship and became the only Indian woman boxer to qualify for the Olympics.

Mary Kom celebrating during the victory ceremony after winning the women’s flyweight (48-51kg) boxing final match against Kazakhstan’s Shekerbekova Zhaina during the 2014 Asian Games at the Seonhak Gymnasium in Incheon.

Mary Kom celebrating during the victory ceremony after winning the women’s flyweight (48-51kg) boxing final match against Kazakhstan’s Shekerbekova Zhaina during the 2014 Asian Games at the Seonhak Gymnasium in Incheon. | Photo Credit: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE

In the Olympics, Mary Kom lost in the semifinals to Nicola Virginia Adams of the UK, who went on to win the gold. The following year, Mary Kom, who was already a mother of twins, gave birth to her third child, and the very next year won gold at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. Although she failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, she won the Asian Women’s Championship for the fifth time in Vietnam in 2017.

Born on November 24, 1982, in Kagathei village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district to tenant farmers Mangte Tonpa Kom and Mangte Akham Kom, Mary’s life is a story of unwavering dedication and hard work.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, “Magnificent Mary” remained at the top of her profession right till the end. In 2018, she made history by becoming the only boxer to win the AIBA Women’s World Championship six times.

The same year she won her first Commonwealth Games gold medal in the light flyweight category. She was 36 years old–an age when most sportspersons are considered past their prime. Following her record-breaking achievement in the World Championship, the government of Manipur gave her the title, “Meethoi Leima” (Exceptional Lady). She secured a flyweight bronze medal in the AIBA World Championship in Russia in 2019. She could not achieve her dream of winning an Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2021.

2012: Nirbhaya case

Nirbhaya. A word that means “fearless”, a word that stirs up emotion, anger, guilt, and collective shame like no other. Nearly a decade has passed after a 22-year-old physiotherapy intern (referred to only as Nirbhaya) was gang-raped and tortured in a bus in Delhi’s Munirka neighbourhood in December 2012, but the memory continues to sear the conscience of Indians.

When the horrific details of the case emerged, they sent the nation into a paroxysm of rage seldom seen before. Less than two weeks after her assault, the victim died in a Singapore hospital. The death led to a widespread outpouring of anger, with thousands of people gathering in Delhi and other major cities in spontaneous protests, calling for immediate action to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Even as the five accused were nabbed, the public at large demanded justice and lasting change. Seeing the public anger, the government sent the case to a fast-track court where, on September 10, 2013, four of the defendants were sentenced to death while the fifth, a minor, was sent to a reform facility.

After several appeals on technical and other grounds were rejected, the four were hanged to death on March 20, 2020.

Protesters carry a floral tribute to a memorial service held outside the Indian High Commission in London.

Protesters carry a floral tribute to a memorial service held outside the Indian High Commission in London. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

One of the major fallouts of the case was the setting up of a judicial committee in December 2012 to look at ways to amend sexual assault laws and ensure quicker investigation and prosecution of offenders. Most of the Justice J.S. Verma committee’s suggestions were implemented.

The new laws included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and the creation of six fast-track courts solely to prosecute rape crimes. It also expanded the definition of rape to include any non-consensual sexual penetration.

The widespread indignation against the lenient treatment offered to the fifth offender resulted also in the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, which mandates that anyone above 16 who is accused of heinous crimes will be treated as an adult in a court of law.

The Centre and various State governments also announced several steps to ensure the safety of women, such as dedicated helplines for sexual abuse complaints, CCTV cameras in police stations, and sensitization of police personnel to register FIRs immediately after complaints.

The Nirbhaya case resulted in an unprecedented rise in public discussion around sexual assault, the need for sex education, and the urgent need to sensitise boys and men about sexual gratification and violence.

2016: Demonetisation

On the evening of November 8, 2016, even as families across India were getting ready to watch their favourite soaps, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on television and announced that from midnight that day, all Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes would cease to be legal tender. He claimed that most black money was held in higher denominations and demonetisation would put a stop to terror funding, end corruption, and eliminate Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN).

More objectives were added by BJP leaders in the following days, as Indians scrambled to return the old notes and lay their hands on fresh cash from banks and ATMs. Demonetisation, people were told, would help them move to a cashless economy, bring more people into the tax bracket, integrate the informal and formal sectors, and even bring down interest rates.

Since there had been no forethought or preparation, the government was not prepared to handle the mayhem that followed the announcement. Millions of citizens were forced to queue before ATMs every single day for weeks on end to get a few hundred rupees in cash.

People waiting outside a bank for cash, in Badal village of Punjab, in the wake of demonetisation.

People waiting outside a bank for cash, in Badal village of Punjab, in the wake of demonetisation. | Photo Credit: KAMAL NARANG

The small and informal sectors came to a grinding halt; even big companies could not pay daily wages, all of which again affected the poor and the marginalised.

Scholars and economists who studied the move have criticised the decision and shown how none of the stated objectives were met. The 2017-18 Economic Survey said that the ensuing economic slowdown was because of “dissipating effects of earlier policy actions,” namely, demonetisation. Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Advisor, tweeted in March 8, 2017: “India’s Economic Survey admits GDP growth doesn’t capture the negative effect of demonetisation.”

To this day, no BJP leader, including its spokespersons, has admitted that demonetisation was a mistake.

Joseph Stiglitz, the economist, told an English TV channel four years ago: “India went into this peculiar experiment of demonetisation and people…. all round the world did not know what you were doing because what you did was to hamper small businesses by taking away the currency that they needed. And you reintroduced small currency, so you didn’t solve the problem that you said you were attacking, which was corruption and all that. So you look at it is a mystery why you did that to your economy.”

Stiglitz would not have had to look too far to discover the mystery. Some opposition politicians believe that the move had only a political motive—winning the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election slated for February 2017. But its impact is still being felt.

2018: Section 377 struck down

In a historic judgment in 2018, a five-judge Supreme Court bench struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in Navtej Johar vs Union of India, 2018.

In the long-drawn battle for decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Indian courts usually took one step forward and two steps backward. The Delhi High Court had decriminalised homosexuality for the first time in 2009 in Naz Foundation vs Government of NCT Delhi, only for the Supreme Court to recriminalise it in Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Union of India, 2013.

The Supreme Court bench that heard the case in 2018 read down the section to the extent that it decriminalised consensual sex among adults of the same sex. The bench comprised the outgoing Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman and Justice Indu Malhotra. While the decision of the bench was unanimous, four concurring judgments were delivered, each laying out its own philosophy, logic, historical context, constitutional theory and practice.

People celebrate outside the Supreme Court after the historic judgment.

People celebrate outside the Supreme Court after the historic judgment. | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

CJI Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar’s judgment quoted the German poet Arthur Schopenhauer: “I am what I am, so take me as I am.”

Justice Chandrachud began his judgment with a Leonard Cohen song and said: “Our ability to survive as a free society will depend upon whether constitutional values can prevail over the impulses of the time.”

In each of the judgments, the judges placed emphasis on the dignity and choice of individuals. Taken together, they read like a charter for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

However, four years after the momentous judgment, the situation on the ground is far from rosy. But attitudes do not change in a day and it is perhaps too much to expect a judgment to transform homophobic societal attitudes cemented over centuries into empathy overnight. But the increasing visibility of the gay community will hopefully change minds and perspectives in due course.

2019: Special status of Jammu and Kashmir revoked

Before the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated by a vote in Parliament on August 5, 2019, the Kashmir Valley saw a massive build-up of troops, and the administration asked non-locals, including Amarnath pilgrims, tourists, and students, to leave. As suspense mounted and international media glare intensified, J&K’s separatist leaders as well as mainstream politicians were taken into custody on the midnight of August 4. The abrogation of Article 370 and 35A ended the exclusivity in jobs and property rights to local people in J&K, hitherto known as “State subjects”. J&K was also bifurcated into two Union Territories of J&K and of Ladakh.

The Centre’s move, for long a project of the BJP and the RSS, found massive public approval across India, with visuals of people distributing sweets and fireworks blanketing TV screens, even as the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley was placed under a strict curfew and all forms of communications banned. The absolute internet ban would continue for 213 days, the longest anywhere in the world.

Protester arrested in Srinagar on October 15, 2019.

Protester arrested in Srinagar on October 15, 2019. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

The government justified the move by claiming that J&K’s integration with India would attract big businesses to the Valley, and also bring about a seismic shift in how the concerns of its most vulnerable sections were addressed. The J&K government, led by Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha, has since come up with the J&K Industrial Policy 2021-2030 to create an enabling environment for investors, generate employment opportunities, and develop the backward regions. It is committed to holding the first ever global investors’ summit in the Union Territory this year.

The Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, an amalgam of five regional parties under the aegis of former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, is currently involved in a judicial struggle for restoration of the pre-August 5, 2019 status of J&K, while alleging that there is increased human rights violations in and repressive bureaucratic control. The Alliance has also accused the Centre of trying to realign the demographics by relaxing requirements for becoming a domicile of J&K. The government also set up a delimitation panel whose orders came into effect on May 20 this year, redrawing electoral boundaries to create Hindu-majority constituencies.

This along with the continued presence of armed forces have resulted in targeted attacks on non-local people and on the Valley’s small Pandit community.

2020: Farmers take the country by storm

The farmers’ protests, which began in Delhi on November 26, 2020, have been called by some observers as the “largest and longest peasants’ struggle in the history of modern India”. Three contentious farm laws, which were promulgated via an ordinance by the Union government, triggered the protests. These were the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and the Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The laws dealt with the sale of agricultural produce, their hoarding, agricultural marketing and contract reform farming among other things, which would essentially open the floodgates for the entry of private players into the agricultural sector.

According to the leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organisation formed to coordinate the protests, the three laws would leave the farmers at the “mercy of corporates” as it would make Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees meaningless. Along with the repeal of the laws, the SKM also demanded that a legislation be enacted guaranteeing minimum support price for agricultural commodities.

Women farmers gather at Tikri border one year after the start of the agitation, in New Delhi, November 26, 2021.

Women farmers gather at Tikri border one year after the start of the agitation, in New Delhi, November 26, 2021. | Photo Credit: PTI

Through the year-long protest, which was primarily led by farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh with massive support from farmers across the country, the farmers remained steadfast in their demands. Eventually the three laws were withdrawn. In a televised address, Modi bemoaned the fact that his government had been unable to convince farmers of the advantages of the laws and said: “We have failed”. Subsequently, the farm laws were repealed by both the Houses of Parliament on November 29, 2021.

The agitation showed how a peaceful and democratic protest could challenge the might of the state. The protesters remained firm at five different locations on the Delhi border through the brutally cold winter and scorching summer of north India. Impromptu towns came up at the protest sites with tented accommodation, community kitchens, and healthcare facilities to sustain the struggle. Over 700 farmers are reported to have died in the course of the protest. The agitation saw an overwhelming participation by women and a socially diverse groups of farmers overcoming boundaries of caste, religion, and geography.

2021: Death of Stan Swamy

The tragic death of Father Stan Swamy, a 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, marked the lowest point in the judicial process of the Bhima Koregaon case. Denied bail under medical grounds several times, Father Stan Swamy died on July 5, 2021, the day his bail hearing was scheduled.

The Bhima Koregaon case, also known as the Elgaar Parishad case, involves the persecution of several others too. Charged under the severe Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,1967, or UAPA, 15 eminent activists, lawyers, intellectuals, and academicians remain incarcerated for allegedly being involved in an “anti-national conspiracy”.

Apart from the poet Varavara Rao and the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, who managed to secure bail, Surendra Gadling, Sudha Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Arun Ferriera, Vernon Gonsalves, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap remain in jail. Family members and associates of the victims have said court hearings are required even to give them a book or a blanket.

Outside a church in Mumbai where Father Stan Swamy’s funeral was held, on July 06, 2021.

Outside a church in Mumbai where Father Stan Swamy’s funeral was held, on July 06, 2021. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

Unfortunately, the act has stringent provisions that make it extremely difficult to secure bail. Moreover, an opaque judicial process and stonewalling of the prisoners have ensured that the accused find it hard to prove their innocence.

In 2021, Arsenal Consulting, an internationally recognised digital forensics company, published two significant reports that showed that the computers of Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling had been tampered with through sophisticated malware. Despite new evidence emerging, the courts have not made any move to grant bail or hear the cases.

It started on January 1, 2018, when Maratha activists reportedly attacked Dalits who had gathered to observe the 200-year anniversary of a war victory against the Peshwas of Pune. Investigation agencies claimed that the Elgaar Parishad, a conference of rights activists held a day before, was responsible for the violence.

Father Stan Swamy was in his 80s and terminally ill. Jail authorities denied him even a straw or sipper until activists raised an outcry. Despite his visibly deteriorating condition, he was denied bail. Finally, he had to be hospitalised and died there.

The case of Stan Swamy and the continuing plight of countless undertrial prisoners is a searing commentary on the judicial process.

2021: COVID-19 second wave

On January 31, 2020, the front-page story in newspapers across India reported the first cases of COVID-19, detected in Kerala among three medical students who had returned from Wuhan in China. But since Kerala had often reported outbreaks and containment of viruses ranging from the deadly Nipah to H1N1 and anthrax in the past, the news was not taken as seriously as it perhaps should have been. 

It was soon discovered that Wuhan was the epicentre of a fast spreading disease. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Novel Coronavirus Disease outbreak as a global pandemic, urging countries to step up preparedness. As cases began to rise in India, Kerala announced a lockdown on March 23; the rest of India went into lockdown on March 25. The lockdown was supposed to give the government and medical authorities enough time to prepare surveillance measures, contact tracing, hospital preparedness, infection control and put in place a containment plan. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw immense publicity potential in the emergency and engaged the public in beating thalis and lighting lamps. 

As the middle class switched to work-from-home mode, millions of migrant labour were stranded on the streets without resources in the stringent lockdown. Faced with the prospect of starvation and death, and with no means of transport, they began to walk back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away. The way the country treated its working class population during those weeks and months will remain a shameful chapter in the annals of history. As if things could not get any worse, the economy began to crumble, spiralling a sequence of unemployment events that India will be dealing with for many years to come. 

The complete lack of preparedness on the part of the governments may be one reason why, when the lockdowns began to be lifted, the second wave of the pandemic hit hard.  It began on March 21, 2021 and the already weak medical infrastructure of the country began to collapse. Shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medical supplies led to devastating scenes outside hospitals and by late April, India became number one in the world in new and active cases. Cremation grounds and burials were so overburdened that they had to turn away bodies. As loved ones were not allowed to pay their last respects it wreaked havoc on the psyche of the people. When images of dead bodies swelling up the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh and hastily buried bodies on its sand banks began to emerge, the country had hit rock bottom. 

It is only after the second wave subsided that the vaccination drive took off in India. But India continues to battle the pandemic. As on August 4, India has the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world after the United States and the third highest number of Covid-19 deaths after the US and Brazil.

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