Prime Minister says the Constitution envisages same rights for all citizens; he urges Muslim community members to ‘understand which political parties are instigating them to ruin them’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday said India needed a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) as the country could not run with the dual system of “separate laws for separate communities”. He was addressing booth-level workers of the BJP in Bhopal (and the interactive session being livestreamed to 10 lakh workers of the party), a speech which clearly signalled his government’s intent on bringing the UCC.

His statement on the UCC comes at a time when the country’s political calendar for the next one year is packed with Assembly polls in five States and the 2024 Lok Sabha election. It also comes less than a fortnight after the 22nd Law Commission of India sought fresh suggestions from various stakeholders, including public and religious organisations, on the UCC.

There was also dual messaging in Mr. Modi’s address wherein he urged the Muslim community in India to “understand which political parties are instigating them to ruin them”, at a time when he had been dogged with concerns expressed in certain quarters of the United States, during his state visit there, on minority rights.

“Colleagues, Muslims in India will have to understand which political parties are instigating them to ruin them while reaping benefits for themselves. These days, we are seeing that such people are being instigated in the name of Uniform Civil Code. You tell me, if in the same family there is one law for one member and another law for a second member, will that household be able to function? Can one run the country with such dual system?” he asked.

‘Same rights for all’

Attacking his political opponents for using Muslims to further their interests at the cost of the community’s well-being, particularly that of the Pasmanda Muslims, Mr. Modi said that same rights for all citizens had been mentioned in the Constitution too.

India and the U.S. have entered a new era of mutual trust and cooperation

The just concluded state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States is undoubtedly a new gambit by both sides to propel their strategic cooperation to an unprecedented level, while staying short of turning treaty allies. The announcement for potential joint manufacture of General Electric (GE) Aerospace’s F414 engines in India by GE and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to power India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft MK2 and the twin-engine Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft MK1 as well as the purchase of 31 high-altitude, long-endurance Predator-MQ-9B armed unmanned aerial vehicles take the defence ties between the countries to a new high. Military cooperation between the two nations has been deepening in the recent past. India has bought from the U.S. the C-130 and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters as well as CH-47 Chinook and MH-60R multi-role helicopters, P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and M777 ultra light howitzers, among others. The U.S. has been aggressively pitching its fighter jets, the F-16 and F/A-18, for the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy. India and the U.S. had tried and shelved an earlier engine development effort under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative some years ago. But now, the new jet engine deal is an investment in each other to address the shared security concerns, while continuing to navigate the disagreements.

Top among their shared concerns is China and its expansion in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. also wants to wean India away from its defence partnership with Russia in the long term. From a technological perspective, the newly announced joint initiatives in jet engine production, semiconductors and space technology present an opportunity for India to develop a defence industry of its own, and improve its technological competence across the board. India and the U.S. have already signed the four foundational agreements and regularly conduct joint military exercises. While its embrace with the U.S. is getting stronger, deeper and more comprehensive, India is also cognisant of the need to maintain its strategic autonomy. U.S. strategy at the moment is focused on creating a new bipolarity in the world, which India is not comfortable with. Getting caught in the power rivalries of others is the last thing that India wants, and the good thing is that the U.S. is increasingly aware of that concern. India’s desire to protect its borders and sovereignty aligns with U.S. interests. This is a new era of mutual trust between the two countries, and it should act as a force for stability in the region.

What has come out of PM Modi’s recent state visit to the U.S.? What concerns have U.S. companies flagged about India’s digital laws? Why is India’s equalisation levy on e-commerce an issue? What are the criticisms of the draft Telecom Act? What are the concerns on data localisation?

EXPLAINER

The story so far:

During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s U.S. state visit, cooperation on technology emerged as a prominent talking point and yielded some of the most substantive outcomes, according to Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra. However, digital trade is also the area where some of the biggest U.S. tech companies have recently flagged multiple policy hurdles, including “India’s patently protectionist posture”. Earlier this year, the Washington D.C.-headquartered Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), with members like Amazon, Google, Meta, Intel, and Yahoo, flagged 20 policy barriers to trading with India in a note titled “Key threats to digital trade 2023”.

What is the current status of India-U.S. technology trade?

Notably, in FY2023, the U.S. emerged as India’s biggest overall trading partner with a 7.65% increase in bilateral trade to $128.55 billion in 2022-23. However, digital or technology services did not emerge as one of the sectors at the forefront of bilateral trade. The CCIA points out in its report that “despite the strength of the U.S. digital services export sector and enormous growth potential of the online services market in India, the U.S. ran a $27 billion deficit in trade in digital services with India in 2020”.

In the recent past, however, the two countries have been ramping up their tech partnership through moves like the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) announced by President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. Additionally, under the iCET, India and the U.S. also established a Strategic Trade Dialogue with a focus on addressing regulatory barriers and aligning export controls for smoother trade and “deeper cooperation” in critical areas.

What have U.S. tech firms flagged?

The CCIA, while appreciating the reinvigorated efforts to ramp up trade through bilateral initiatives, has flagged in its note, the “significant imbalance” and “misalignment” in the U.S.-India economic relationship. “The U.S.’s extension of market access, trade and openness to Indian companies to operate and succeed in the U.S. has not been reciprocated by the Indian side,” it reads, adding that the Indian government has deployed a range of “tools to champion their protectionist industrial policy”, tilting the playing field away from U.S. digital service providers in favour of domestic players.

To describe these “discriminatory regulation and policies”, it cites the example of India’s guidelines on the sharing of geospatial data, which it accuses of providing preferential treatment to Indian companies. It has also expressed discontent over India’s veering away from “longstanding democratic norms and values, and seeking greater government censorship and control over political speech”, which it argues has made it “extremely challenging for U.S. companies to operate in India”.

What taxation measures has the CCIA raised concerns about?

One of the taxation tools that U.S. tech firms have long taken exception to is the expanded version of the “equalisation levy” that India charges on digital services. India in 2016, with the goal of “equalising the playing field” between resident service suppliers and non-resident suppliers of digital services imposed a unilateral measure to levy a 6% tax on specific services received or receivable by a non-resident not having a permanent establishment in India, from a resident in India who carries out business.

In 2020, the Centre came out with the ‘Equalisation Levy 2.0’, which imposes a 2% tax on gross revenues received by a non-resident “e-commerce operator” from the provision of ‘e-commerce supply or service’ to Indian residents or non-resident companies having a permanent establishment in India.

The equalisation levy, when it was first introduced in 2016, led to double taxation and further complicated the taxation framework. Besides, it also raised questions of constitutional validity and compliance with international obligations. The 2020 amendment again led the levy to become sweeping and vague in its scope. Further, in 2021, instead of introducing an amendment, the government issued a “clarification” to say that the expression ‘e-commerce supply or service’, inter alia, includes the online sale of goods or the online provision of services or facilitation of the online sale of goods or provision of services.

What about India’s IT Rules 2021?

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, has been flagged by the consortium of foreign tech firms under the some of the most “problematic policies”. The IT Rules place compliance burden on social media intermediaries (SMIs) and platforms with five million registered users or more, which means several U.S. firms end up falling under the ambit.

Some points of concern raised are the “impractical compliance deadlines and content take-down” protocols — the IT Rules require intermediaries to take down content within 24 hours upon receiving a government or court order. The platforms are also required to appoint a local compliance officer. Moreover, with the amendments made to the Rules late last year, SMIs are now obligated to remove, within 72 hours, information or a communication link in relation to the six stipulated prohibited categories of content as and when a complaint arises. There is also major criticism against the government’s institution of the three-member Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC), which will hear user complaints about the decisions of SMIs regarding their content-related issues and have the power to reverse those decisions.

What has been flagged in the new draft of the data protection law?

While the firms appreciate a “notable improvement” in the government’s new draft (and the fourth iteration) of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill released in November 2022, ambiguities about cross-border data flows, compliance timelines, and data localisation still remain.

India, with more than 759 million active internet users representing more than 50% of its population is a gold mine for data. The country is also planning to become a hub for data processing, wanting to host data centres and cloud service providers. This means that India’s policy on the flow of data across borders will impact the same on a global level, as was seen with the European Union’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While there are various arguments in favour of data localisation requirements by governments, such requirements also tend to significantly increase operating costs of companies and can be seen as discriminatory by foreign companies.

Foreign tech companies like Meta or Amazon operating in India find it convenient to store their data, say in the U.S. or wherever they have their servers. This means that such data has to leave Indian borders. The new draft has only one line about cross-border data flows — Section 17 of the Act says that cross-border flow of data will only be allowed for a list of countries notified by the Centre. On what basis will these countries be notified and what will the terms for such transfers be is not mentioned in the draft. Industry experts wonder whether whitelisting some countries for allowing data transfers would mean that other countries are automatically blacklisted. The CCIA argues that instead of taking this “opaque” approach, the law could be strengthened by “proactively supporting cross-border data flows through certifications, standard contractual clauses and binding corporate rules”.

What have firms said about the Telecom bill?

The CCIA contends that the draft Telecommunications Bill, 2022, has a sweeping regulatory ambit in that it “would redefine “telecommunication services” to include a wide range of internet-enabled services that bear little resemblance to the telephony and broadband services previously governed by this regulatory regime”.

The current draft of the Bill puts both Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) and Over-the-top (OTT) communication services under the definition of “telecommunication services”. OTT communication services include messaging platforms such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, Google Meet etc., which use the network infrastructure of TSPs like Airtel and Jio to provide features that compete with telecommunication services such as voice calls and SMS services.

The CCIA contends in its note that the proposed law if passed in its current form, would subject a number of platforms to “onerous obligations including licensing requirements; government access to data; encryption requirements, internet shutdowns, seizure of infrastructure, and possibly monetary obligations for the sector”. The industry body contends that the law would “impose a first of the kind global authorisation/licensing requirement for any digital firm”.

What are the other policy barriers?

Last year, the Parliamentary Committee on Finance, in order to address anti-competitive practices by big tech companies, proposed the adoption of a “Digital Competition Act”. This, the CCIA says would include estimated taxes for big or significant digital intermediaries, arguing that the proposal appeared “to be largely targeted at U.S. tech companies”.

Law Commission Chairman Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi (retd) says enough safeguards had been proposed to prevent the misuse of Section 124A of IPC; the panel also recommends bridging the big gap in punishment tenure by increasing the term from three to seven years, as per the severity of crime

Amid a clamour for the colonial-era sedition law to be repealed, Law Commission Chairman Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi (retd) said on Tuesday that it was an important tool to safeguard the “safety and integrity of India” given the situation in many parts of the country, from Kashmir to Kerala and Punjab to the Northeast.

Defending the panel’s recommendation to retain the law, which is at present under abeyance following directions of the Supreme Court issued in May last year, he said enough safeguards had been proposed to prevent its misuse.

He said that special laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA) operated in different fields and did not cover the offence of sedition and therefore, the specific law on sedition needed to be there too.

He also said that the sedition law being a colonial legacy was not a valid ground for its repeal and several countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and Germany, had their own such laws.

Preventing misuse

In its report submitted to the government last month, the 22nd Law Commission headed by Justice Awasthi supported retaining Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) with safeguards to prevent its misuse.

The recommendation triggered a political uproar with several Opposition parties alleging that it was an attempt to stifle dissent and voices against the ruling party ahead of the Lok Sabha election next year.

While the government said it would take an “informed and reasoned” decision on the Law Commission report after consulting all stakeholders and that the recommendations were “persuasive” but not binding, the Congress had alleged that the government wanted to make the sedition law more “draconian”.

Referring to the “procedural safeguards” recommended by the commission, Justice Awasthi said that the preliminary inquiry would be held by a police officer of the rank of inspector or above.

The inquiry would be done within seven days from the occurrence of the incident and the preliminary inquiry report would be submitted to the competent government authority for permission for lodging of FIR in this regard, he added.

“On the basis of the preliminary report, if the competent government authority finds any cogent evidence with regard to commissioning of the offence of sedition, it may grant permission. It is only after the grant of permission that the FIR under Section 124A of the IPC shall be lodged.”

“We have also recommended that the Central government may issue guidelines which are to be followed in case of commission of any such offence and the said guidelines may clarify as to under what circumstances the said offence was committed,” the former Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court said.

He also said that the law panel had not made any recommendation for enhancement of punishment “as such”.

Disparity in term

Under the existing provision of Section 124A, punishment can be up to three years imprisonment, with or without fine, which may go up to imprisonment for life, with or without fine.

“We have found that there is a big gap in the punishment provision. We found this gap to be very odd and, therefore, we have said that this punishment of up to three years with or without fine maybe increased to seven years with or without fine,” he explained.

CAD narrows to 0.2% of GDP, from $13.4 bn or 1.6% in year-earlier period and $16.8 bn in Oct.-Dec. quarter, RBI data show; moderation in trade deficit in Jan.-March to $52.6 bn, from $71.3 bn in Q3, combined with a jump in services exports helps

India’s current account deficit (CAD) narrowed to $1.3 billion (0.2% of GDP) in the fourth quarter of FY23, from $16.8 billion (2%of GDP) in the preceding three-month period, and $13.4 billion a year earlier, data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Tuesday show.

“The sequential decline... was mainly on account of a moderation in the trade deficit to $52.6 billion in Q4 from $71.3 billion in Q3, coupled with robust services exports,” the RBI said. Net services receipts increased, both sequentially and year-on-year, on the back of a rise in net earnings from computer services. Private transfer receipts, mainly remittances by Indians employed overseas, rose 20.8% to $28.6 billion.

Net foreign direct investment at $6.4 billion was higher than $2 billion in Q3, although lower than a year earlier ($13.8 billion).

For the full fiscal year, the current account deficit widened to $67 billion (2% of GDP), from a deficit of $38.7 billion (1.2%) in FY22, as the trade deficit ballooned to $265.3 billion, from $189.5 billion.

“We expect... improvement in the CAD in FY24,” said Rahul Bajoria, MD & Head of EM Asia (ex-China) Economics at Barclays.

“Both export and import values are expected to soften owing to weak external demand and lower international commodity prices - leading to a narrower goods trade deficit.

“A larger boost... will come from a robust services trade surplus,” Mr. Bajoria added.

In a new study, researchers have reported more human remains found in Tam Pà Ling in Laos. They now have a more detailed and robust timeline for the site. This shows humans reached the region at least 68,000 years ago, and possibly as long as 86,000 years ago

In 2009, when our team first found a human skull and jaw bone in Tam Pà Ling Cave in northern Laos, some were sceptical of its origin and true age.

When we published a timeline in 2012 for the arrival of modern humans in mainland Asia around 46,000 years ago based on the Tam Pà Ling evidence, the sceptics remained.

In short, the site was given a bad rap. One of the most interesting caves in mainland Southeast Asia was frequently overlooked as a possible route on the accepted path of human dispersal in the region.

However, in new research published in Nature Communications, we report more human remains found in Tam Pà Ling – and a more detailed and robust timeline for the site. This shows humans reached the region at least 68,000 years ago, and possibly as long as 86,000 years ago.

Plenty of evidence, hard to date

Our team of Laotian, French, US and Australian researchers has been excavating at Tam Pà Ling for many years. As we dug, we found more and more evidence of Homo sapiens at earlier and earlier times.

First there was a finger bone, then roughly 2.5 metres deeper, a chin bone, then part of a rib. In total, eight pieces were found in only 4.5 metres of sediment – which may not sound like a lot, but is huge in archaeological terms.

Surely, we thought, this would be enough for Tam Pà Ling to take its place among the early human arrival sites in Southeast Asia.

But a hurdle remained: the cave is hard to date. This has prevented its significance being recognised, and without a convincing timeline the cave’s evidence will not be included in the debate over early human movements.

Many dating methods can’t be used

There are a few difficulties with dating Tam Pà Ling.

First, the human fossils cannot be directly dated as the site is a world heritage area and the fossils are protected by Laotian laws.

Second, there are very few animal bones and no suitable cave decorations, either of which might be used for dating.

And third, the entrance of the site is wide and steep. This means any charcoal found in the cave, which is useful for dating, may well have come from outside – so it has little relation to the age of the sediment inside.

This means the backbone of the timeline must be established by the dating of the sediment itself, using techniques such as luminescence dating.

Signals in buried minerals

Luminescence dating relies on a light-sensitive signal that builds up in buried sediment, resetting to zero when it is exposed to light.

This technique mainly uses two minerals: quartz and feldspar.

Quartz can only be used in the younger levels as it is limited by how much signal it can hold. In the deeper layers it can often underestimate the age, so in Tam Pà Ling we only used quartz to date the top three metres of the sediment.

For the lower levels (four to seven metres), we had to switch to dating using feldspar to fill in the gap in the age profile. Below six metres the feldspar grains started to weather and we had to resort to fine-grain dating, using tiny mineral grains all mixed together.

Dating teeth

Tam Pà Ling is relatively poor in animal evidence. Yet, eventually two teeth from a cow-like animal were unearthed at 6.5 metres deep that could be dated using two distinct techniques.

Uranium series dating works by measuring uranium, and the elements into which it transforms via radioactive decay, within the tooth. Electron spin resonance dating relies on measuring the number of electrons in tooth enamel.

Each technique offers an individual numerical age for the fossil. By combining the two, we obtained robust direct dates, which can complement the luminescence chronology.

A closer look at sediment

To make the dating as strong as possible, we used every technique we could, such as applying uranium series dating to a stalactite tip that had been buried in sediment.

We also began to support all our dating evidence with a very detailed analysis of the sediments to assess the origin of the fossils.

Micromorphology is a technique that examines sediments under a microscope to establish the integrity of the layers that buried the fossils.

This is a key component of the new chronology, as it helped establish that there was a fairly consistent accumulation of sediment layers over a long period.

By 2022, we had amassed an array of dating evidence that could be modelled to determine the exact age of each layer and the fossils they buried.

Route for human dispersal

Our updated chronology revealed humans were present in the vicinity of Tam Pà Ling Cave for roughly 56,000 years. It also confirmed that, far from reflecting a rapid dump of sediments, the site contains sediments that accumulated steadily over some 86,000 years.

The age of the lowest fossil, a fragment of a leg bone found seven metres deep, suggests modern humans arrived in this region between 86,000 and 68,000 years ago.

The evidence from Tam Pà Ling has pushed back the timing of Homo sapiens arrival in Southeast Asia.

This suggests the mainland, along with the coastal and island locations, may have also been a viable dispersal route.

Tam Pà Ling is just a stone’s throw from Cobra Cave, where we found a tooth some 150,000 years old belonging to a Denisovan, the now-extinct human relatives otherwise known only from remains found in Siberia and Tibet.

This suggests the site may lie on a previously used dispersal route among hominins.

Tam Pà Ling continues to reveal pieces of the puzzle of the ancient human journey across the world.

Only time will tell how many more it has in store.

Kira Westawayis associate professor, School of Natural Sciences, Macquarie University. Meghan McAllister-Haywardis a PhD candidate. Mike W. Morleyis associate professor, Flinders University. Renaud Joannes-Boyauis associate professor, Southern Cross University. Vito C. Hernandezis a PhD candidate.

(This article is republished from The Conversation.)