Wednesday, August 26, 2020

NEET/JEE Examinations during the Pandemic in India: Whose interest will it really serve?

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Syed Ahmed Uzair

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NEET/JEE Examinations during the Pandemic in India: Whose interest will it really serve?


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 26, 2020


Students at an examination

Students at an examination | Source: Indian Express

India currently is the third worst-hit country globally in terms of the total number of COVID-19 cases which is still on the increasing trend. The country had imposed one of the toughest lockdowns across the world to counter the threat of Corona in the initial phase itself. Apart from the economic activities, the lockdown has impacted the education sector in a big way.

All the education institutions from pre-nursery schools to the professional colleges and universities were closed down in the month of March 2020 itself. These institutions are still closed for the physical presence of students and the classes are happening only through online modes which doesn't require students to venture out from their homes.

The schools and colleges cancelled the pending examinations of last academic year and gave general promotion to the students for the next class. Many examinations for admissions to various college programs in the country were also done away while some are still on.

Two of the biggest national level entrance exams, the NEET and the JEE, which have been postponed multiple times in the light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases are now in the spotlight. This is due to the fact that the Ministry of Education recently stated that both the JEE and the NEET will be held in the upcoming month of September. The NTA has issued public notices citing that the JEE (Main) April 2020 is scheduled from September 1-6, while NEET-UG 2020 exam is scheduled for September 13.

The Supreme Court had responded to a plea filed on 17th August seeking postponement of the exams, while dismissing it, that the precious year of students “cannot be wasted”. The plea that had been filed through advocate Alakh Alok Shrivastava via 11 students from different states sought the quashing of the notices issued on July 3rd by the National Testing Agency (NTA), which set the dates for JEE and NEET in September next month.

The Medical Council of India (MCI) in response to the plea has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court stating that further postponement of the NEET would be a “drastic deviation” from the academic schedule which “may affect the subsequent academic years” of the students. It also ruled out the possibility of conducting NEET online owing to the “paper book format” of the exam. It further stated that conducting the exam at the same time everywhere is imperative and hence it cannot be organized in countries like Qatar and UAE which attract significant applicants.

With the centre looking adamant to organize the exams, student organizations like the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the Indian National Congress, and the All India Student’ Association, student wing of the CPI(ML) have come together to protest against the decision. Both the outfits demanded cancellation of all first and second-year exams and giving promotion to the students, holding final year exams in a way such that students across the country can write them, and most importantly postponement of both the NEET and the JEE.

Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Minister of Human Resource Development, India | Source: IndiaTVNews

An argument in favour of conducting the exams as given by Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank was that the majority of the aspirants had already downloaded their admit cards for the exams. However, it is quite easy to see that students do not have a choice. One can argue that if we put ourselves in the applicant’s shoes, even we would do the same and download the admit cards. This by no means is an indication that students are willing to appear in the exams.

My personal experience in appearing for the JEE and AMU-EEE back in 2017 and 2018 is more than enough for convincing me in favour of postponing the exams. For JEE alone nearly 15 lakh students appear annually. The examination centres are usually overcrowded both before the beginning and after the culmination of the exam and it is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing. Also, the students are normally accompanied by parents or guardians which further adds up to the crowd. Further due to the large number of applicants it will be impossible to maintain distance in the examination halls unless and until the number of examination centres is increased tremendously. Due to various financial and logistical reasons, this will be an uphill task to accomplish.

Students across the country have reacted strongly to the decision of the Court on social media. Most of them are worried about contacting COVID which will put their own as well as the family members’ at risk. Manish Chaubey, one of the 11 petitioners in SC, said, “My hometown is in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and I am in Mumbai at present. It will be a hassle and immensely risky to travel now. Why should I have to put my parents through this?". While some pointed out the irony of the SC using a virtual mode to conduct hearings for making students appear in the exams, others chose to blame the BJP for being inhuman in forcing students into crowded examination centres.

In an open letter to the HRD ministry and education minister Dr Harshvardhan, MadhuPurnima Kishwar, founder of human rights organization, MANUSHI, sought to address the countless appeals regarding various issues and concerns of applicants nationwide received by her. Most of the appeals revolved around safety concerns and fear of contracting the coronavirus disease and thus jeopardizing the safety of family members.

In the letter, she pointed out how the recently organized KCET and B.Ed exam in UP were a clear indication of how it would be nearly impossible to implement the distancing and safety guidelines in the overcrowded examination centres. The overwhelming shortage of examination centres in the light of distancing norms was also mentioned in the letter. She also stated how many IIT and AIIMS directors were of the opinion that the exams could be conducted in November without significant academic loss.

Another very important fact mentioned in the letter was regarding the applicants from countries like the UAE and Qatar. Due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone arriving in the country from overseas, it will be very tricky for these applicants and their parents to travel under the current scenario. Parents of nearly 4000 applicants in these countries abroad had filed a plea for either postponing the exams or conducting them abroad. However, the NTA, after consulting with the MCI, ruled that conducting the exams overseas is not a viable option which means that all these candidates will be left stranded. Even if they manage to fly to India for appearing in the exams, they will then be subject to various guidelines issued by their parent countries abroad.

Multiple politicians also voiced similar concerns regarding the decision. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi urged the government to consider the concerns of the students appearing for the entrance examinations. Manish Sisodia, Aam Aadmi Party leader and the deputy CM of Delhi also echoed similar thoughts. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy on Sunday came up with 13 points concerning logistical issues as well as safety concerns in the argument for the need of postponing the exams.

Another very strong argument in favour of postponing the exams was the lack of public transport services due to lockdown in many districts and states of the country. While those who had arrangements for private vehicles would not face any issue, the others would be left stranded in the absence of the various means of public transports. Lastly, many states are still under various degrees of lockdown as the overall situation of the country is still not very great in terms of daily coronavirus cases. This would also make movement for those applicants with examination centres away from their native places very difficult.

The debate surrounding the NEET and JEE exams has become quite a heated issue around the country. With so many applicants and their parents asking for the postponement of the exams due to various safety concerns, it remains to be seen if the government would still go ahead in organizing these exams as planned.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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