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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?

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Do Indian celebrities have the moral authority to condemn racism when they themselves promote the idea that white skin is more desirable than black or brown skin? And does the Black Lives Matter movement offer India an opportunity to critically examine its own increasingly intolerant society, including the oppressive caste system?

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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?
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Priyanka Chopra, a leading Bollywood actress who has also acted in Hollywood films, came under fire recently for endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement while at the same time being a brand ambassador for skin-lightening creams in India. Critics say that this movie star cannot claim to support a movement against racism when she herself has promoted products that suggest that light/white skin is more beautiful than dark/black skin.

Indian movie directors have also been accused of promoting the idea that light skin is better by insisting that their leading ladies be fair-skinned. The few dark-skinned actresses who have made it in Bollywood have had to jump many hurdles to be taken seriously; often the only acting roles they get are in “alternative cinema” where they play poor or marginalised women. Dark-skinned actresses often have to invest in a fair amount (no pun intended) of make-up to pass screen tests that are partial to light skin and European facial features.

“If you watch Bollywood films, you’d imagine India was a country of white folks”, quipped the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy in a recent interview. (The billion-plus Indians’ skin colour ranges from rosy pink to tan, chocolate-brown and a kind of ash-grey that could pass for black.)

The desire for fair skin is not limited to Bollywood; it extends to Indian society as a whole. Matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers are full of ads seeking “fair” brides.

British colonialism undoubtedly instilled feelings of inferiority among the dark-skinned Indian people. Since “whiteness” was associated with power, wealth and technological advancement (not to mention beauty), light skin became an aspiration among Indians. (Though it must be said that not even a century of colonisation managed to erase Indian culture and India’s major religions, which remained largely intact despite the British presence; in fact, some say that the British colonialists were both baffled and in awe of the resilience of Indian culture despite their attempts to denigrate and erase it.)

The furore against Chopra comes against a backdrop of statues of Mahatma Gandhi being removed from a university in Ghana and debates around whether India’s most revered freedom fighter and non-violence resistance advocate was in fact a racist, given that he did little to fight for the rights of black South Africans during his 21-year stint in South Africa before he returned to his home country in 1914 to contribute to India’s freedom struggle.

In recent years, there have also been complaints by African students studying in India that they face harassment on the streets and discrimination when it comes to housing. Africans living in India find the country to be a hostile environment that is difficult to negotiate because the racism is coming not from white people, as is usually the case, but non-white people. As Roy commented in her interview, “Indian racism towards black people is almost worse than white people’s racism”.

Horror stories of female African students being stripped in public or being called derogatory names have been emerging in recent years, yet there has been no diplomatic crisis, as the one that erupted recently when some African countries made official complaints against the Chinese government for allowing the mistreatment of Africans living in China, ostensibly because they were perceived to be infected with COVID-19.

The discussion on “brown-on-black” racism has been further fuelled by a much-needed conversation in India on whether Indians have any right to condemn White America for racism when Hindu India has for decades been discriminating against Muslims and low-caste Hindus (known as Dalits). Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a distinct Hindu nationalist agenda, India has become more intolerant of religious minorities and marginalised groups, with reports of Muslims and Dalits being lynched and even murdered by Hindu mobs.

Perhaps now that Priyanka Chopra has moved to America (she recently married the American singer and songwriter Nick Jonas), she is more aware of racism. Indian immigrants in Europe and America find that even the most light-skinned among them eventually face some form of discrimination. This has led some to join hands with black-led movements. In the UK, for instance, there was a strong push for Asians to define themselves as “black” during the conservative Thatcher years to emphasise the power imbalance between white and non-white people in Britain and to give the black movement political clout. Asians in the UK who called themselves “black” were making a political statement.

The Indian diaspora in the United States and other Western nations may feel slighted by the white racism they experience, but many have no problems supporting divisive politics at home. Ms. Chopra, for instance, is an ardent supporter of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharataya Janata Party (BJP). As Ashok Swain wrote in the December 2017 edition of Outlook, “[The] Hindu diaspora has been a major powerbase and source of funding for the Hindutva politics in India . . . While Hindu NRIs [non-resident Indians] are so sensitive and even aggressive to protect their perceived minority rights in the country of their residence, at the same time they refuse to accept minorities in India”.

The blurred line between race and caste

So are Indians inherently racist? This is a complicated question because in India the line between caste and colour often gets blurred. The Hindu caste system is such that skin colour is often associated with caste background. Lighter-skinned Indians of Aryan descent are often associated with high caste background, even though there are many high-caste Hindus in India who have dark skin, and many low-caste Hindus who are light-skinned.

Caste prejudice, therefore, easily translates into colour prejudice in the Indian context. Black Africans are perceived as low caste – people who can be looked down upon and mistreated without the perpetrator suffering any sanction. It’s as simple – and as ridiculous – as that.

Historians maintain that the caste system was brought to India by the Aryans, a pastoralist tribe from Central Asia that invaded northern India around the second millennium BC and subjugated the indigenous population. As explained by historian Romila Thapar in her book, Early India: From Origins to AD 1300, the dominant view is that the Aryans introduced Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language that is used in the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas.

The Aryans were viewed as representing a superior civilisation that later became the foundation of what might be loosely referred to as Hindu culture. Hinduism sprouted a pantheon of gods and goddesses (some adopted from the faith of the indigenous animists) and introduced a system that divided people into occupational groups and relegated others to servitude.

However, Thapar is of the view that ascribing a superior race to the Aryans is not accurate because there is little archaeological evidence of a large-scale Aryan “invasion” of India that displaced the existing indigenous culture. However, there is evidence of an Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family “having been brought to northern India from beyond the Indian-Iranian borderlands and evolving through a series of probably small-scale migrations and settlements”.

Thapar says that by the middle of the 20th century, the concept that the Aryans had a superior language and race began to fall apart. It is more likely that there were “Indo-Aryan speaking peoples”, not an Aryan race. “It is important to emphasise that it [Aryan] refers to a language group, not a race, and language groups can incorporate a variety of people”.

To muddy the waters even further, the ruling BJP has been denying that there was ever an Aryan invasion in order to support the theory that Hinduism (the dominant religion in India) was not imported to India, but is indigenous to the subcontinent. This theory also demolishes the idea that Indian culture is a product of “alien” forces. The “aliens” in Modi’s India are Muslims and Christians, who are being portrayed as being the by-products of invading Muslim armies and conquerors or European missionaries (conveniently forgetting that Islam and Christianity existed in India before the advent of the Muslim Mughal Empire in the 16th century and before Britain colonised India in the mid-19th century).

Regardless of their origin, it is widely accepted that the Aryans established the Hindu caste system in India. It is believed that the new rulers needed a system to entrench their rule, and to enforce obedience among the people whose lands they occupied. “Since a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes . . . Race was seen as scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them”, writes Thapar.

At the top of the caste system were, naturally, the creators of the system, the Brahmins, who monopolised priesthood and learning. Then came the Kshatriyas (warriors), followed by Vaishyas (traders) and finally Sudras (workers). Outside these castes or varnas were what are known as the “Untouchables” (who Gandhi, in an attempt to destigmatise them, referred to as Harijans or Children of God). The Untouchables, who were assigned degrading menial jobs like cleaning latrines, were not allowed to come near upper caste Hindus, and were not even allowed to enter temples. They were denied access to common wells and other public areas because they were viewed as “impure” or “polluted”. (Nowadays, Untouchables are referred to as Dalits, a less stigmatising and more politically correct word that in the Marathi language means “broken people”.) In other words, the caste system legitimised inequality and discrimination.

B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit who rose to be India’s first Law Minister, called the caste system a “degrading system of social organisation”. He said that, especially for Untouchables, “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors” that denies them even the most basic of rights.

Added to the grief of the lower castes is the notion of karma – the belief that individual suffering is the result of bad deeds committed by an individual in a past life, a sort of divine retribution that must be endured by those who experience suffering. Poverty and other debilitating conditions are considered an inevitable outcome of bad karma. With such a belief system entrenched in the psyche of the average Indian, it is no wonder that Dalits have not risen against their oppressors in large numbers, though in recent years they have formed their own political parties, and a few have also been elected into Parliament.

Apologists for the caste system say that by defining areas of occupation for various groups, the caste system helps Indian society to function without much conflict or stress because each caste knows its place and role in society, and obtains some kind of solidarity within its own caste group and legitimacy within the wider society. On the other hand, critics like Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism before his death in 1956, say that it is a system that hinders social and economic mobility, and ensures that certain groups remain in a permanent state of “backwardness”, with little chance of rising to positions of power or influence.

Although casteism is less prevalent in India than it was when India gained independence, it is not unusual to still hear stories of low-caste people being lynched, raped and generally exploited by upper caste Hindus – a reality that has become more common under Modi’s leadership. In fact, as Roy and women’s groups have consistently highlighted, Dalit women are more likely to be raped by upper-caste Hindus than women from higher caste backgrounds.

BLM: An opportunity to dismantle caste prejudice

So if one wants to understand Indian racism, one must also unpack casteism, which is in some ways more insidious than racism because it is accepted as normal and God-ordained.

Casteism is a particularly difficult concept for non-Indians to grasp because, unlike racism, it is socially and widely accepted as an integral part of Hinduism, and is therefore considered sacrosanct. As Roy states, “Casteism and racism, though they have different histories, are not different except that casteism claims some kind of divine mandate”. In other words, you could say that casteism is not unlike the revisionist Christianity advocated by white South Africans that sanctioned the separation of the races.

Hindus must divorce themselves from the caste system which, in any case, does not benefit the majority of Hindus. They must dismantle the rigidity of the system, which relegates people to superior or inferior status by pigeonholing them into occupational groups that in India are also associated with skin colour. They must make the connection between their own caste prejudices and the racial prejudices endured by people in other countries. This work needs to be done in tandem with anti-racism and human rights movements everywhere, and would require a massive shift in consciousness that would require redefining what it means to be a Hindu.

As Arundhati Roy points out in the introduction to the book Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, though caste is not the same as race, casteism and racism are comparable. She writes:

Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectually challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisatoin that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure? Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarians, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.

Although various Indian governments and India’s constitution have tried to dampen the negative impact of the caste system by instituting various affirmative action programmes and laws that protect Dalits (or what are known as “scheduled castes”) and other minorities, caste prejudice is still rampant in India. Upper caste Hindus still dominate top jobs in government and in business, and colour prejudice is apparent everywhere, including in advertising billboards and movies.

We must understand that casteism, like racism, is an exploitative economic strategy, crafted by those in power to ensure their dominance. The question is always about who gets to control the resources. Slavery and colonialism were institutionalised racism that allowed white people to exploit non-white people and their lands. Racial superiority is nothing but a myth perpetuated by supremacists who would like people to believe that skin colour is a privilege, not just an accident of geography, climate, migratory patterns or other factors.

The global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has offered all of us an opportunity to examine whether our societies have institutionalised discrimination, not just along the lines of race, but also along the lines of caste, religion, ethnicity, tribe, clan, gender and sexuality. This opportunity must not be lost; Indians should seize it with both hands.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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BBI and Kenya’s Finest Jurists

For Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga, the dim prospects of the Bill process could upend any succession plans they have hatched together. Political analysts believe that Mr. Kenyatta could back Mr. Odinga for the presidency next year against Mr. Ruto.

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On May 13 this year, a five-judge bench of the Kenya High Court struck down a state effort to amend Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. With the possible exception of the 2017 ruling of the Supreme Court of Kenya overturning the re-election of Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta – a first for Africa – no judicial opinion has been more consequential. The ruling struck like a thunderbolt and upset Mr. Kenyatta’s legacy, and possibly upended his succession plans. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Kenyatta has pegged his tenure on the fate of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a project ostensibly designed to rid Kenya of perennial electoral violence, rampant corruption, and ethnic and sub-national exclusion and marginalization.

From the “Handshake” to BBI

In 2017, Mr. Kenyatta sought re-election against a strong challenge from Mr. Raila Odinga, without doubt Kenya’s key opposition figure. Mr. Odinga had run against pro-establishment candidates before, each time coming up short. On several of those occasions, Mr. Odinga had claimed fraud and ballot-stuffing. But each time, he was eventually declared the loser. That pattern repeated itself in 2017. Citing irregularities, the Supreme Court annulled that election and ordered a fresh vote. Mr. Odinga boycotted the re-run, assuring Mr. Kenyatta of victory. Mr. Odinga refused to concede and swore himself in as the “people’s president.” Deadly violence, often with ethnic undertones, broke out. The economy was paralyzed. Then on March 9, 2018, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga shocked the nation by declaring a truce.

The rapprochement between Kenyatta and his archrival Mr. Odinga came to be known as the “Handshake.” Out of it grew BBI, which they termed a historic initiative to right Kenya’s past wrongs and firmly put it on an irreversible path to full citizenship and belonging for all its diverse peoples. Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga unilaterally appointed the Building Bridges Initiative Task Force, a fourteen-member body composed mainly of status quo apparatchiks and politicians. In October 2020, the task force released its report and a constitutional amendment bill. Articles 255-257 of the Constitution provide for the process of amending the Constitution through a referendum after approval by Parliament and a simple majority of Kenya’s 47 counties.

In March 2021, Parliament approved the BBI bill. However, groups of NGOs and citizens sued the State, the legislature, and the Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to stop them from conducting the referendum. The suit alleged, inter alia, that the process of the BBI was illegal and unconstitutional. It argued that the BBI bill would usurp the sovereignty of the people and abridge the constitution. They submitted further that Parliament was powerless to pass bills that would negate the “basic structure” doctrine which allows only the people – not the legislature – to fundamentally alter the basic logic and architecture of the constitution. This last point was a novel one in Kenyan jurisprudence because no one had hitherto invoked it in live proceedings.

Kenya’s Finest Jurists

Sitting at the High Court in Nairobi to hear the petition were arguably Kenya’s finest jurists. The bench was led by Presiding Judge Joel Ngugi. Justice Ngugi, a Harvard-trained academic, had been a professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, one of America’s finest law schools. He is also a reputable member of the school of thought known as TWAIL, or Third World Approaches to International Law. He is recognized as a leading intellectual in Kenya and elsewhere. Early in his judicial career, he led the Judiciary Transformation Institute (JTI) when Dr. Willy Mutunga was Chief Justice in 2012-2016. His judicial rulings have been original, progressive, and stretch the scope of human rights.

Justice Ngugi was joined on that bench by four other judges, including Justice George Odunga, a leader in expanding the rights of the citizenry against an illiberal state bend on curtailing the rule of law. Justice Odunga is one of a small cadre of brilliant and courageous judges who are leading a judiciary long held captive by executive overreach and corrupt cartels to a more independent posture. The others on that bench – Justices Chacha Mwita, Teresia Matheka, and Jairus Ngaah – have themselves been lauded for standing up to an executive prone to the abuse of power. The bench had been appointed by former Chief Justice David Maraga, who had often clashed with Mr. Kenyatta for failing to carry out court orders.

The ruling was a shocker when it came down. In a scathing – even disdainful – ruling, the judges uprooted tree, stem, and branch of the entire BBI process. The bottom line was that the judges viewed the whole BBI process as the fruit of a poisoned tree, and therefore wholly unsalvageable as a constitutional matter. In a tongue lashing the likes of which Kenyans were unaccustomed to, the court laid waste to every one of the basic arguments for the BBI initiative. After the five-hour ruling, there was hardly anyone who thought the BBI project could be revived. Its proponents were shell-shocked, and its opponents supremely elated. The state and the initiative’s backers have gone to the appeals court to reverse the ruling.

A Jurisprudential Milestone

Several of the court’s findings deserve special attention. The court agreed with the petitioners that the BBI initiative was irregular, illegal, and unconstitutional. First, in the televised ruling, the judges held that Mr. Kenyatta had failed the integrity test of leadership and violated the norms contained in Chapter Six of the Constitution. This is significant because no one should hold office – and is liable to impeachment if they do – once they are found in violation of Chapter Six. It is not clear what the political implication for Mr. Kenyatta is on this finding. But the judges warned that Mr. Kenyatta could be sued in his individual capacity. The import was to pull the moral rug from under him.

Secondly, the judges rubbished the five million votes collected from citizens by the BBI task force to support the referendum push. They ruled that the initiative was not started, or led, by citizens. The court ruled that only the people, not the government, can initiate and conduct a process to amend the constitution through a referendum. In other words, the state cannot hide behind a murky process to take away the people’s will.

Thirdly, the judges held that the IEBC – several of whose members had resigned – was not properly constituted and therefore lacked quorum to conduct any legal business. As such, any decisions that the IEBC had taken, or would take, on the BBI process were null and void.

Fourth, the court ruled that only a people-driven initiative (exercising constituent authority) as opposed to a state-driven exercise (exercising constituted authority) can change the fundamental architecture of the Constitution. Thus, the “basic structure” doctrine prohibits the state from taking a machete to the Constitution and mutilating its foundational assumptions, norms, and basic edifice. The larger meaning of this finding is a jurisprudential milestone for Kenya because it disallows the piecemeal and selfish amendments to the constitution by Parliament in cahoots with the executive. It says only the people have the power to fundamentally reconstitute the state either through enacting a wholly new constitution, or carrying out deep reforms of the extent one. This preserves the notion of popular sovereignty.

Fifth, the court held that Parliament did not have the power to allocate 70 more constituencies in the BBI bill. The judges ruled that only the IEBC – and no other entity – could allocate new constituencies. The largest share of these additional constituencies were allocated to Mr. Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic strongholds as way of enticing his supporters to support BBI. Mr. Kenyatta has been locked in a battle of supremacy in his backyard against Mr. William Ruto, the Deputy President. Mr. Kenyatta had vowed to support Mr. Ruto, a Kalenjin, as his successor, but then reneged. Mr. Ruto then went behind Mr. Kenyatta’s back to peel away a large chuck of the Kikuyu electorate and turn it against BBI.

Do or Die

For now, the state and the backers of the BBI bill have gone to the Court of Appeal seeking to overturn the High Court’s historic ruling. It is anyone’s guess what the appellate process will yield. Anything is possible given the capture of large sections of the judiciary by the executive. The appeal could result in a reversal in whole, or in part, of the High Court ruling. Or it could wholly reaffirm the lower court’s ruling. One thing is undeniable – it is now an open question whether a referendum is even feasible given the election calendar in 2022. Time may simply run out on the BBI clock. Mr. Ruto and his supporters have celebrated the court’s ruling.

For Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga, the dim prospects of the Bill process could upend any succession plans they have hatched together. Political analysts believe that Mr. Kenyatta could back Mr. Odinga for the presidency next year against Mr. Ruto. The BBI agenda could’ve been an important calculus in that matrix. One of its proposals was to expend the executive to include a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. These offices would have been an important carrot to bring on board a broader ethnic coalition of major communities to support Mr. Odinga. It is clear that Mr. Kenyatta and his family and political orbit cannot risk a Ruto presidency because of the bad blood between the two men. BBI for him is a do or die proposition. Will the courts rescue, or sink, him?

This article was first published in Verfassungsblog.

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India’s COVID-19 Surge Is a Warning for Africa

The surge in COVID-19 cases in India, spurred by a more transmissible variant and complacency, provides a stark warning to African populations to remain vigilant to contain the pandemic.

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India has been grappling with a deadly COVID-19 surge that hit the country like a cyclone in early April. Within a month, new daily cases peaked at over 400,000. On May 19, India set a global record of 4,529 COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours. Over 500 Indian physicians have perished from COVID since March. The actual figures on these counts are likely to be much higher due to testing limitations. Conservative estimates indicate India has experienced over 400 million cases and 600,000 deaths overall.

India’s hospitals are overflowing with patients in the hallways and lobbies. What hospital beds are available are often shared by two patients. Thousands more are turned away. Entire families in the cities are falling ill, as are whole villages in some rural areas. Countries in the region, such as Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia, have also experienced a sharp uptick in cases fueled by the highly transmissible Indian variant.

India’s surge is also remarkable considering the country largely avoided the worst of the earlier stages of the pandemic.

India’s COVID-19 surge is a warning for Africa. Like India, Africa mostly avoided the worst of the pandemic last year. Many Sub-Saharan African countries share similar sociodemographic features as India: a youthful population, large rural populations that spend a significant portion of the day outdoors, large extended family structures, few old age homes, densely populated urban areas, and weak tertiary care health systems. As in India, many African countries have been loosening social distancing and other preventative measures. A recent survey by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) reveals that 56 percent of African states were “actively loosening controls and removing the mandatory wearing of face-masks.” Moreover, parts of Africa have direct, longstanding ties to India, providing clear pathways for the new Indian variant to spread between the continents.

So, what has been driving India’s COVID-19 surge and what lessons might this hold for Africa?

The Indian Variant Is More Transmissible

In February, India was seeing a steady drop of infections across the country, and life was seemingly returning to normal. Unfortunately, this was just a calm before the storm. That same month, a new variant, B.1.617, was identified in the western state of Maharashtra, home to India’s largest city of Mumbai. Now widely known as the “Indian variant,” B.1.617.2 (or “Delta” variant according to WHO’s labeling) is believed to be roughly 50 percent more transmissible than the U.K. or South African variants of the virus, which, in turn, are believed to be 50 percent more transmissible than the original variant, SARS-CoV-2, detected in Wuhan.

Some experts say the emergence of B.1.617.2 represented a significant turning point. Within weeks, the new variant spread throughout southwest India and then to New Delhi and surrounding states in the north. Densely populated urban centers of New Delhi and Mumbai became hotspots. The virus then started spreading rapidly in poor, rural states across the country.

The Rapid Spread of India's COVID Variant

Medical professionals are saying the new variant is infecting more young people compared to the transmissions of 2020. Multiple variants are now circulating in India, including the Brazil (P.1) and U.K. (B.1.1.7) variants. Moreover, a triple mutant variant, B.1.618, has been identified and is predominantly circulating in West Bengal State. A triple mutant variant is formed when three mutations of a virus combine to form a new variant. Much remains unknown about B.1.618, though initial reports suggest it may be more infectious than other variants.

Complacency and the Loosening of Restrictions

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a global threat in 2020, Indian authorities implemented a strict and early lockdown, educational campaigns on mask wearing, and ramped up testing and contact tracing where they could. However, since the peak of infections in September 2020, a public narrative started to emerge that COVID-19 no longer posed a serious threat. It was also believed that large cities had reached a measure of herd immunity. The relative youth of India and its mostly rural population that spends much of its time outdoors, further contributed to the sense that India had escaped the public health emergencies seen in other parts of the world.

“Government messaging during the first few months of 2021 boosted the narrative that India was no longer at risk.”

Government messaging during the first few months of 2021 boosted the narrative that India was no longer at risk. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus in late January. In March, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, proclaimed the country was “in the endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Behavioral fatigue also set in. Mask wearing waned, as did social distancing, all while tourism opened up and people began traveling to other parts of the country as in pre-pandemic times. Leaders in the western state of Goa, a popular tourist destination, began ignoring pandemic protocols and allowed entry to tens of thousands of tourists in an effort to bounce back from the economic fallout of the 2020 lockdown. Instead, Goa is believed to be the epicenter of the 2021 surge and now has one of the highest rates of infection in the country.

People began socializing in large gatherings elsewhere in the country as well. Contradictory COVID-19 protocols that called for strict night curfews and weekend lockdowns while simultaneously allowing large weddings and mass religious festivals only added to the collective sense of confusion and complacency. Contact tracing and follow-up in the field largely stopped.

Super-Spreader Events

India’s COVID-19 surge was also seemingly driven by a variety of super-spreader events. Most prominently were two international cricket matches in Gujarat State in western India where 130,000 fans converged, mostly unmasked, at the Narendra Modi Stadium.

Unmasked crowds fill the streets during India’s Kumbh Mela Festival in April 2021. (Photo: balouriarajesh)

Unmasked crowds fill the streets during India’s Kumbh Mela Festival in April 2021. (Photo: balouriarajesh)

Prime Minister Modi, himself unmasked, campaigned in state elections at rallies of thousands of maskless supporters in March and April. In West Bengal, where voting is held in eight phases, infections have since spiked.

Thousands gathered in the state of Uttar Pradesh to celebrate Holi, the weeklong festival of colors that began on March 29. Meanwhile, millions pilgrimaged to the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand State in April, which possibly led to “the biggest super-spreader [event] in the history of this pandemic.”  Leaders in Uttarakhand not only allowed the festival to take place but also openly encouraged attendance from all over the world saying, “Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19.”

Warning for Africa

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in India underscores why African countries cannot let their guard down or succumb to myths that cast doubt on how to bring the pandemic to a halt. Most directly, the Indian variant has already reached Africa. It was first detected in Uganda on April 29, 2021, and is now circulating in at least 16 African countries. Moreover, hospitals and ICUs in Uganda are now reporting an overflow of cases linked to the Indian variant. Many of the incoming patients are young people. India also shares similar social features with Africa: a young population, extended family structures that include caring for the elderly at home, and returning to less-populated rural areas of origin when crisis strikes.

COVID-19 Variants Spreading in Africa

Previous analysis has shown that there is not a single African COVID-19 trajectory. Rather, reflective of the continent’s great diversity, there are multiple, distinct risk profiles. Two of these risk profiles—Complex Microcosms and Gateway Countries—seem particularly relevant when assessing the Indian surge risk for Africa.

Complex Microcosms represent countries with large urban populations and widely varying social and geographic landscapes. Many inhabitants of countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, and Ethiopia live in densely populated informal settlements, making them particularly susceptible to the rapid transmission of the coronavirus. This group also has a higher level of risk due to their weaker health systems, which limits the capacity for testing, reporting, and responding to transmissions. Both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria are among Complex Microcosm countries that have already detected the Indian variant.

Gateway countries, such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa, have among the highest levels of international trade, travel, tourism, and port traffic on the continent. This makes them more exposed to potentially more infectious and deadly variants that have emerged from other parts of the world, such as India. The interconnected nature of South Asia and the African continent is seen by the early detection of the Indian variant in Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa.

India and the African continent have strong historical, cultural, and economic bonds. Roughly 3 million people of Indian origin live on the continent, and India is Africa’s second most important trading partner after China. Southern and East Africa, in particular, have deep ties to India and large Indian populations with families on both continents. In short, there are many economic and socially driven pathways for the Indian variant to reach Africa.

Priorities for Africa
Lessons from India show that its unprecedented COVID-19 surge was driven by both a more transmissible variant as well as by letting its guard down on preventative public health measures. This exposed the vulnerability of India’s closely integrated and densely populated demographics. A number of African countries also face elevated risks to the spread of the pandemic. Learning from India’s experience highlights several priorities for Africa.

Skyline in Mombasa, Kenya. (Photo: Leo Hempstone)

Skyline in Mombasa, Kenya. (Photo: Leo Hempstone)

Sustained Vigilance. Africa must remain vigilant since some of the same presumed protections India claimed, such as large rural populations that spend much of the day outside, may not guard against the next wave. The new Indian variants are spreading rapidly among young populations, and there is evidence that these newer variants, rather than just exploiting compromised immune systems, are causing some young healthy immune systems to overreact, resulting in severe inflammation and other serious symptoms.

This was the pattern observed in Africa during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. The second wave of this pandemic was the result of a significantly more infectious and lethal strain that devasted the continent, infecting the young and the healthy. Countries outside Africa exposed to the mild first wave seemed to experience a reduced impact during the second wave, even though the two strains were markedly different. Having largely escaped the mild first wave, Africa was particularly vulnerable to the virulent second wave.

Continued Importance of Mask Wearing and Social Distancing. The strength of Africa’s public health system is its emphasis on prevention over curative care. African health systems do not have the infrastructure or supplies to respond to a crush of cases. Yet, many African countries have been actively loosening mask mandates and social distancing controls. On May 8, the Africa CDC hosted a Joint Meeting of African Union Ministers of Health on COVID-19 to encourage governments to overcome pandemic fatigue and invest in preparedness. With an eye toward India, prevention measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, and good hand hygiene are still as important as ever until vaccines become more readily available.

“Africa must remain vigilant since some of the same presumed protections India claimed, such as large rural populations that spend much of the day outside, may not guard against the next wave.”

Public Messaging. India suffered from confusing messaging at the early stages of the surge with prominent leaders and public health officials downplaying the severity of the risk and not modeling safe practices with their own behaviors. As they did with the initial onset of the pandemic, African leaders must convey clearly and consistently that the COVID-19 threat persists. Special outreach must be made to youth, who may feel they are immune, but who face greater risks from the Indian variant than previous variants that were transmitted on the continent. In cases where there is a low level of trust in government pronouncements, communication from trusted interlocutors such as public health practitioners, cultural and religious leaders, community leaders, and celebrities, will be especially important.

Ramping Up of Vaccine Campaigns. According to the Africa CDC, the continent has administered just 24.2 million doses to a population of 1.3 billion. Representing less than 2 percent of the population, this is the lowest vaccination rate of any region in the world. With the Indian and other variants coursing through Africa, the potential for the emergence of additional variants rises, posing shifting threats to the continent’s citizens. Containing the virus in Africa, in turn, is integral to the global campaign to end the pandemic. Recognizing the global security implications if the virus continues to spread unchecked in parts of Africa, the United Nations Security Council has expressed concern over the low number of vaccines going to Africa.

While this can largely be attributed to the limited availability of vaccines in Africa during the early part of 2021, this is changing. A number of African countries are now unable to use the doses they have available as a result of widespread vaccine hesitancy driven by myths surrounding the safety of the vaccines. Meanwhile, several African countries have not yet placed their vaccine orders with Afreximbank.

African governments and public health officials, therefore, need to ramp up all phases of their COVID-19 vaccine rollout—public awareness and education, identification of vulnerable populations for prioritization, and logistical preparations and outreach—for a mass vaccination effort to reach as large a share of their populations as possible. Africa’s well-established networks of community health workers provide a vital backbone as well as a trusted and experienced delivery mechanism to successfully achieve these objectives. With technical, financial, and logistical support from external partners, African vaccination campaigns can rise to meet the challenge.

This article was first published by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

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Mr President, in the Name of the Constitution, Swear in the Judges

President Uhuru Kenyatta should live up to his oath of office to obey the constitution and resist the temptation to be garlanded in the pettiness of performing power, writes former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.

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Mr President, In The Name Of The Constitution, Swear In The Judges
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Mr. President

I have elected to speak elaborately and strongly on this issue because when apparently innocuous and blithe breaches to the Constitution begin to occur, especially from the highest office in the land, they signal a dangerous dalliance with impunity. This is particularly so when these occurrences are intentional, persistent, defiant, and brazen – fuelled by an inexplicable determination to overrun the barricades of Kenya’s constitutional order.

There is a reasonable presumption that anyone seeking public office would be familiar with the Constitution. The presumption is even stronger that such persons have read, re-read, and understood provisions specific to the office they seek and, consequently, fully comprehended the allocation and demarcation of power and authority thereto. If they haven’t, then they don’t deserve to be in those offices in the first place. If they have, they have an obligation to respect every provision. That’s the meaning of public officers taking an oath before assuming office to protect, defend, and promote the Constitution, and to abide by all other laws of the Republic.

Nothing in the oaths says, ‘I will obey and protect only those aspects of the Constitution that I find convenient and self-fulfilling; so help me God’. The oath is comprehensive, total, and unqualified; and its administration is not an exercise in jest, but rather a very solemn commitment to conscience and to country; to self and to the public, in the performance of public duty held in trust for the Kenyan people. If any public officer does not like the powers the Constitution donates to them, or find the exercising of those powers annoyingly inconvenient, they have no business continuing to occupy those offices. Resignation and early voluntary retirement are readily available options that the Constitution merrily provides, in order to protect itself from individuals who may find further fidelity to its edicts a burdensome enterprise.

The provision on the appointment of judges is clearly articulated in Article 166, as well as the Judicial Service Act. The JSC discharged its mandate properly and completely in 2019 by recommending for appointment 41 judges. The president, by dint of plain, clear constitutional provisions, and numerous court orders, is obliged to appoint all the recommended judges without hesitation, review, or negotiation.

It is disappointing that this standoff, needlessly occasioned by presidential obduracy, has recurred. Sadly, it has done so in a manner that lowers the esteem of the office, undermines the rule of law, and erodes public confidence both in the elevated majesty of statecraft, and in the granularity in administration of justice.

In 2015, when this issue first emerged, the JSC and the president openly discussed the matter, and agreed on a framework that not only respected the constitutional processes but also acknowledged the unique nature of the presidency. Under this framework, it was agreed that, if the president has any adverse reports on any shortlisted candidates for judgeship, he, both in his privileged position as Head of State, and as a citizen of Kenya and a member of the public, would share that report with the JSC at that stage (not later) in the recruitment process. However, in the interest of fairness, these reports or allegations – just like all the others the JSC receives – would be put to the candidate for his or her response, before the Commission makes a determination on the suitability of that candidate. This is such a fair and common-sense approach that has worked before. In the recruitment of the 41 judges, the president did not present any adverse reports at the appropriate stage, leaving JSC with no option but to make recommendations for appointment.

I rehash this account in the public interest, and because statesmanship requires honour. It abjures petulance. The president’s conduct in this matter has been beneath the dignity of that high office. For two years he has subjected several advocates to untold personal suffering for no reason at all and called into question the integrity of serving judges and judicial officers without any due process. That the president has finally gazetted 34 of the 41 (one had in the meantime died) advocates recommended two years ago following an inexplicable and dishonest delay, speaks to an exercise of power that is egregious, reckless and insensitive.

Most disturbing is the president’s decision to omit the names of six judges and judicial officers from the list. Strikingly, the presidential ‘list of hate’ has even mysteriously changed, meaning that the objection to the judges’ nomination is driven more by personal pique rather that principle. That is not the way to conduct the serious business of state.

The scientific formulation in the provision of the Constitution on the appointment of judges was intended precisely to be an antidote to this kind of whimsical and capricious presidential conduct such as is being seen in ugly display in this matter.

State offices are not the personal property of any individual or officer. All Kenyans have a right to seek to serve in the manner prescribed by law and no individual or authority can arbitrarily renounce, withdraw, or abrogate this right.

The constitution is clear on the mechanisms for raising any issue the president or any other person may have against a sitting judge or judicial officer at whatever level. The JSC has been tested on these issues and has dealt openly and fairly with complaints against judges of ranks even higher than the Court of Appeal. Even Chief Justices, myself included, have had to answer to public petitions in an open and fair process — and that is as it should be. That the president has delayed appointments for two years without presenting any evidence to the Commission in spite of active and repeated solicitation points to bad faith, and most likely, absence of any actionable information on the judges.

And this is not the time to commence muck-racking adventures in a feeble and abominable attempt to besmirch the character of the judges and judicial officers.

The president must resist the temptation to be garlanded in the pettiness of performing power, particularly by those who have built a thriving pettiness cottage industry, completely consumed by the pursuit of personal vendetta, at the expense of the national good and Kenya’s fledging constitutional democracy.

It is urgent that the president immediately appoints the six judges, many of whom are exceptional, because that’s what fairness, common decency, the rule of law and the Constitution require. The independence and accountability of the judiciary is not negotiable. And in the fullness of time, everybody gets to learn this lesson — some rather too painfully, too late, having played a part in undermining it.

Mr President, you bear a burden of history to do the right thing for Kenya’s Constitution, her institutions, and the general public. Discharge this burden. Simply do the right thing.

Mr. President I remain sincerely,

 

Willy Mutunga

Chief Justice & President, Supreme Court of Kenya,
Republic of Kenya,  2011-2016

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