It has been a year that has most of us lost for words. But it has also been a year in which cartoonists have got much fodder, giving readers lots of food for thought. The Indian Express cartoonist E P Unny picks his best from the year we would all like to forget.
India’s sudden nationwide lockdown on March 24 was followed by a massive migrant exodus, as millions poured out from the cities they had been working in to make their long way back home. The spectacle of families trudging thousands of miles to their villages, often on foot and bicycle, had the nation riveted, as the invisible hands that make our cities work suddenly burst upon our sight and our mind. Trains to take them home started operations on May 1, and by June 16, the ‘shramik specials’ had ferried 60 lakh people to different parts of India. Not all migrants managed to get the train, however, and the journey home cost many their lives –– run over on roads and railway tracks, or collapsing from illness and exhaustion. In September, the government told Parliament it had no data on the number of migrant workers who died during the lockdown. Once home, these workers proved to be carriers of the coronavirus, taking Covid-19 to rural areas unprepared and unequipped for the outbreak.
On September 30, 28 years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a CBI court acquitted all 32 surviving accused, citing lack of evidence. Among those acquitted of conspiracy charges were the leading lights of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992: former Union ministers L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalyan Singh, and former BJP MP Vinay Katiyar. The verdict, coming barely a year after the Supreme Court, while permitting the construction of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, held that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was an “egregious wrong”, led to questions on the case the CBI built for the prosecution. Many called for the CBI’s “caged parrot” to be freed from political influence, so the cause of justice could be served better. The court, while acquitting the accused, held: “No prosecution witness has clearly named any accused persons; the witnesses have also not clearly stated that it was through the accused that the disputed structure was demolished.”
Kamala Harris becoming the Vice-President-elect of the United States of America was greeted with jubilation in India, a country to which her mother’s family belongs. However, that was also a moment to question if a child of immigrants, belonging to a disadvantaged minority community, could make it similarly big in today’s India, with laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the anti-conversion legislation often called the ‘love jihad law’, and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, went to America as a 19-year-old in the late 1950s, making a career as a breast cancer researcher. Shyamala’s father, PV Gopalan, a civil servant, hailed from Thulasendrapuram, a village in Tamil Nadu. Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, is a Jamaican-born economics professor. In India, the proposed National Register of Citizens can take away the citizenship of those who can’t show documents to prove the Indian nationality of their previous generations, while the Citizenship Amendment Act and the anti-conversion laws coming up in several states imperil the status of minorities, especially Muslims, as equal citizens of India.
The Indian economy had been doing poorly in 2020 even before the pandemic hit. India’s GDP growth rate hit a six-year low in 2019. By December, it was clear that India had entered a technical recession. Moreover, since this contraction came at the back of deceleration in GDP growth rate since 2016-17 onwards, the economic stress showed up in rising joblessness and increasing poverty. And as the numbers slid, so did the GDP and the economy in the list of things the government chose to talk about. Like the once all-pervasive, infectious ‘achche din’, talks of GDP growth, jobs and economic vikaas seem to have been packed in a proverbial ‘jhola’ and whisked off somewhere. In the year ahead, according to the IMF, the economy is likely to contract by 10.3 per cent in the current fiscal, and then grow by 8.8 per cent in 2021-22. But while real GDP is expected to rebound, it may take almost two years for it to get back to pre-pandemic levels.
In March this year, Madhya Pradesh got a new government after Jyotiraditya Scinda walked out of the Congress straight to the BJP, with 22 MLAs in tow. It took almost three months for this new BJP government to get a full cabinet, as Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan struggled to balance Scindia’s demands with the aspirations of BJP old-timers. Eventually, Chouhan had to cede a lot of ground to Scindia –– as many as 14 of the 22 legislators whose rebellion brought down the Congress government became ministers, as compared with 20 of the 107 BJP MLAs in Madhya Pradesh. The turncoats also managed to get plum cabinet berths, with portfolios like Revenue and Transport, Health, Panchayat and Rural Development, Energy, and Women and Child Development going to Scindia loyalists. Ministers of state from his camp too got significant responsibilities, such as PWD, Urban Development and Farmer Welfare. It was not Chouhan who engineered Scindia’s defection into the BJP, according to BJP sources, Home Minister Amit Shah played a significant role in roping in the Congress leader, and ensuring the change of regime in the state.
For superstar Rajinikanth, 2020 was the year to decide whether his political debut was to be or not to be. With barely days left for the year to end, Thalaiva, who had recently been hospitalised for fluctuations in blood pressure, said he would not take the plunge after all. Much like his “spiritual” statements in the past, the 71-year-old attributed his decision to God, saying: “I see this (hospitalisation) as a warning given to me by God. My campaign will impact health amid the pandemic.” Rajinikanth’s decision put to rest speculations about whom his political entry would benefit. With Tamil Nadu set to go to Assembly elections in 2021, while some had thought the superstar’s entry would help the BJP, others said he was more likely to gain from bastions of the AIADMK and BJP rather than split the opposition votes, given that supporters of DMK and other Left-leaning and minority parties are mostly unhappy with his camaraderie with the BJP and RSS.
The whole world watched as the United States of America chose itself a new government in a protracted, querulous, and deeply polarised election on November 3. About four days after the voting, it became clear that Democrat Joe Biden had won the presidency –– to everyone except the incumbent President, Donald J Trump, and some of his supporters, who cried election fraud. Much water has flowed in the Potomac since the election, various courts have thrown out legal challenges to the results, and Biden is busy setting up his administration (amid some friction with the current government). But President Trump is tenacious –– at the time this report was being written on December 30, he had tweeted: “When are we going to be allowed to do signature verification in Fulton County, Georgia? The process is going VERY slowly. @BrianKempGA Pennsylvania just found 205,000 votes more than they had voters. Therefore, we WIN Pennsylvania!!!” Hours before that, he complained: “Can you imagine if the Republicans stole a Presidential Election from the Democrats – All hell would break out. Republican leadership only wants the path of least resistance. Our leaders (not me, of course!) are pathetic. They only know how to lose! P.S. I got MANY Senators and Congressmen/Congresswomen Elected. I do believe they forgot!”
The final month of 2020 saw news headlines in India dominated by our new Parliament building, the foundation stone of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid on December 10. The building, to come up on 64,500 square metre area, is estimated to cost Rs 971 crore. At the foundation-laying ceremony, the PM said: “Speaking and listening is at the heart of dialogue. Indeed, this is the soul of democracy.” Meanwhile, 83-year-old imprisoned tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy had to go to court to have his plea for a straw and sipper heard. Swamy, who has Parkinson’s disease, said he needs the straw and sipper as he has trouble eating and drinking, because his hands shake. Swamy’s co-accused in the Elgaar Parishad case, Gautam Navlakha, told the Bombay High Court his spectacles were stolen from Taloja jail on November 27, and he was denied a fresh pair. His family alleged that despite the activist being “almost blind without them”, prison authorities didn’t let him call his kin for three days, and when they couriered a new pair of spectacles, prison officials refused to accept it. During the case hearing, the HC observed, “Humanity is important, everything else will follow subsequently.”
December 28 marked a month since the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh passed an anti-conversion law to check what it calls “love jihad”. Since the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, came into effect, the police registered 14 cases and made 51 arrests, of whom 49 are in jail. Of these 14 cases, 13 involve Hindu women allegedly pressured to convert to Islam, but in only two cases is the complainant the woman herself — in the others, the complainants are her relatives. In two of them, Hindu right-wing activists intervened, holding protests at the police station. In all cases but one, the woman involved is an adult. In eight cases, the couple are said to have been either friends or in a ‘relationship’; while one couple claim to be married. One case involves alleged illegal conversion to Christianity, registered in Azamgarh. The cases made the merger of Lakshmi Vilas Bank Limited with the DBS Bank seem like a match made in heaven, as the Bombay High Court in November refused an interim stay on the government-approved union. After UP, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have also come up with their versions of the anti-conversion law.
Faced with a tough election in Bihar in November, the BJP seemed to forget the “nation” in vaccination. The party in its manifesto promised free vaccine to “everyone in Bihar”. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who released the manifesto, said, “This is the first promise in our sankalp patra. With responsibility, we are assuring the people of Bihar that all of you will get a free vaccine.” The promise raised eyebrows, with many saying it was inappropriate on part of the party in power at the Centre to make a national health emergency a state poll plank, and others asking if only people in non-BJP-ruled states would have to pay for the vaccine. As Health Minister T S Singh Deo of Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh said: “We have not been told anything by the Government of India about the purchase of the vaccine. It is not an issue if we (states) are asked to pay. If we have to pay, we will…but vaccines should be made available in proportion to the population. A vaccine cannot be assured for a particular state.” However, the Election Commission later said the promise was not in violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
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