1. Durand Line: Friction point between Afghanistan, Pakistan

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Relations

Earlier this week, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told a Pashto channel in Pakistan that Afghans oppose the fence erected by Pakistan along the Durand Line. “The new Afghan government will announce its position on this issue. The fencing has separated people and divided families. We want to create a secure and peaceful environment on the border so there is no need to create barriers,” Mujahid said.

The issue has sowed distrust between Afghans and Pakistan for decades, and is a potential flashpoint in relations between the Taliban and Pakistan.

Line dividing Pashtun

The Durand Line is a legacy of the 19th century Great Game between the Russian and British empires in which Afghanistan was used as a buffer by the British against a feared Russian expansionism to its east.

The agreement demarcating what became known as the Durand Line was signed on November 12, 1893 between the British civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand and Amir Abdur Rahman, then the Afghan ruler.

Abdur Rahman became king in 1880, two years after the end of the Second Afghan War in which the British took control of several areas that were part of the Afghan kingdom. He was essentially a British puppet. His agreement with Durand demarcated the limits of his and British India’s “spheres of influence” on the Afghan “frontier” with India.

The seven-clause agreement recognised a 2,670-km line which, according to Rajiv Dogra , author of Durand’s Curse: A Line Across the Pathan Heart, Durand drew on the spot on a small map of Afghanistan during his negotiations with the Amir. The line stretches from the border with China to Afghanistan’s border with Iran.

Clause 4 said the “frontier line” would be laid down in detail and demarcated by British and Afghan commissioners “whose object will be to arrive by mutual understanding at a boundary which shall adhere with the greatest possible exactness to the line shown in the map attached to this agreement, having die regard to the existing local rights of villages adjoining the frontier”.

In reality, the line cut through Pashtun tribal areas, leaving villages, families, and land divided between the two “spheres of influence”. It has been described as a “line of hatred”, arbitrary, illogical, cruel and a trickery on the Pashtuns. Some historians believe it was a ploy to divide the Pashtuns so that the British could keep control over them easily. It also put on the British side the strategic Khyber Pass.

Cross-border tensions

With independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited the Durand Line, and with it also the Pashtun rejection of the line, and Afghanistan’s refusal to recognise it. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan joining the United Nations in 1947.

‘Pashtunistan’ — an independent country of the Pashtuns — was a demand made by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the time of Partition, although he later resigned himself to the reality of Partition. The proximity of the ‘Frontier Gandhi’ to India was a point of tension between the two countries almost immediately. The fear of Indian support to Pashtun nationalism haunts Pakistan to date, and is embedded in its Afghan policy.

Pakistan’s creation and support for the Taliban is seen by some as a move to obliterate ethnic Pashtun nationalism with an Islamic identity. But it did not work out the way Pakistan had planned. When the Taliban seized power in Kabul the first time, they rejected the Durand Line. They also strengthened Pashtun identity with an Islamic radicalism to produce the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, whose terrorist attacks since 2007 left the country shaken.

The fence

As cross-border tensions peaked in 2017 with several attacks on Pakistani border posts by militants that Pakistan accused Afghanistan of sheltering – while the Afghan government accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network – Pakistan began erecting a fence on the Durand Line. While it may have reduced the movement of militants from Afghanistan into Pakistan, it did little to stop the movement of Afghan Taliban across and back.

Now mostly completed, the fence has been a source of more tensions as Afghans, and Pashtuns on both sides of the border, see it as a move by Pakistan to formalise the boundary, making their division permanent. This is the fence that Zabiullah Mujahid said was not acceptable to the Taliban.

An Al Jazeera report said the $500 m fencing is actually two sets of chain-link fences with a 6-ft gap, filled with concertina wire coils. It is 11.6 ft high on the Pakistani side, and 13 ft on the Afghan side. It is fitted with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors, and punctuated by 1,000 watchtowers. Cross-border movement will only be allowed through 16 formally designated points after the completion of the project.

Pakistan believes that in the new situation in Afghanistan, the fence will help control any spillover from unrest and chaos there.

Source: The Indian Express

2. Reading US Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas anti-abortion law

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to block a Texas anti-abortion law that bans termination of pregnancy after six weeks. The 5-4 majority decision of the Supreme Court has raised questions on the right to abortion and the conservative approach of the court.

What is the law that was challenged?

In May 2021, the Texas legislature enacted S. B. 8 (the Act). The Act, which took effect at midnight on September 1, makes it unlawful for physicians to perform abortions if they either detect cardiac activity in an embryo or fail to perform a test to detect such activity, even though this could be months before a viable foetus develops. Legal experts have noted that the wording is designed to make it very difficult to challenge the law in courts.

Laws that outlaw an activity are enforced by the state. However, according to The New York Times, the Texas law gives rights to private citizens to “sue anyone who performs an abortion or ‘aids and abets’ a procedure. Plaintiffs who have no connection to the patient or the clinic may sue and recover legal fees, as well as $10,000 if they win”. So the question before the Supreme Court was whether the Texas law can be challenged in courts with the state of Texas as a defendant.

On both moral and religious grounds, a strong anti-abortion movement is in place in the US. In India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act allows abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

What has the court ruled?

In a 5-4 majority opinion, it has refused to block or grant a preliminary injunction against the law despite a constitutional right to abortion that the US Supreme Court had recognised in the 1973 verdict Roe v Wade.

Chief Justice John G Roberts, Jr, and associate justices Stephen G Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

“Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand. Last night, the Court silently acquiesced in a State’s enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedents. Today, the Court belatedly explains that it declined to grant relief because of procedural complexities of the State’s own invention. Ante, at 1. Because the Court’s failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent,” Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent.

What does a refusal to block mean?

The emergency ruling refusing to block is akin to a refusal to grant an interim stay of legislation by Indian courts. While Wednesday’s ruling does not stop the Texas legislation from facing legal challenges, it also ensures that for the first time since Roe v Wade, such a stringent anti-abortion law is enforced.

Other Republican states, too, have introduced similar laws but these have not yet been implemented as they are challenged in courts. According to The NYT, these include Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio.

How has the US Supreme Court ruled earlier on abortion?

In its 1973 verdict in Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court had ruled with a 7-2 majority that undue regulation on abortion violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees due process in laws. Despite several attempts to overturn the ruling, Roe v Wade stayed as the precedent that protected women’s rights to bodily autonomy.

Also, the 1992 verdict Planned Parenthood v Casey recognised that laws outlawing abortion are unconstitutional if they place an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion before the foetus is viable.

What questions does the latest ruling raise?

The obvious fallout is the enforcement of a regressive anti-abortion regime that would violate the rights of women.

“Without full briefing or argument, and after less than 72 hours’ thought, this Court greenlights the operation of Texas’s patently unconstitutional law banning most abortions. The Court thus rewards Texas’s scheme to insulate its law from judicial review by deputizing private parties to carry out unconstitutional restrictions on the State’s behalf,” Justice Elana Kagan noted in her dissenting opinion.

Another question raised is about the US Supreme Court’s practice of handing out preliminary or summary rulings that could vastly affect civil liberties — a practice that is referred to as “shadow docketing.”

What is shadow docketing?

Unlike the Indian Supreme Court, the US Supreme Court hears only about 60-70 cases in a year which it carefully chooses. The cases chosen are put in the “merit docket”. For cases that do not make it to the docket, the court does not cite reasons or issue a signed reasoning. This practice is referred to as “shadow docketing”, which legal experts have noted is on the rise in recent years, with the justices handing down one- or two-sentence summary decisions late at night in controversial cases.

In February this year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the shadow docket, inviting legal experts to explain the history of the practice, and looked into whether the Congress should be concerned about the practice.

Source: The Indian Express

3. Zambia’s new President Hakainde Hichilema’s herculean task

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues

The new President has to put Zambia’s public finances in order and restore civil liberties

The new Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema’s landslide victory on August 12, in his sixth bid for high office, was a resounding rebuke against an unpopular rule. Mr. Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), won by about a million votes more than his predecessor Edgar Lungu, of the Patriotic Front (PF), in an extremely polarised climate.

Army patrols in major cities on the eve of voting; a cyber security law enacted months earlier, ostensibly to prevent the dissemination of fake news; a shutdown of social media platforms on election day; and intimidation of independent media only heightened apprehensions of a rigged election. In the event, the country witnessed a record turnout of over 70%.

Contentious moves

Mr. Lungu had set his sight on extending his rule. First, he ensured that he could sidestepthe legally stipulated two-term limit for a President. In December 2018, the constitutional court upheld Mr. Lungu’s eligibility to run in last month’s elections. It maintained that the latter’s ascent in the January 2015 by-election could not be construed as a full first term because he was chosen to serve the remainder of his deceased predecessor’s tenure.

His second objective was to preclude the risk of losing in the event of a close contest. To this end, he devised a constitutional amendment last year to alter the two-stage election procedure. Under the proposal, if the candidate with the maximum vote failed to clear the 50%+1 ballot in the first round of polling, he would be authorised to explore a coalition government rather than face his closest rival in a run-off. The bill did not garner the requisite majority for a constitutional amendment.

No less contentious than these two moves was the manipulation of voter records. The electoral commission deferred the complex exercise of compilation of new voter registers until just a year before the August 2021 polls. The delay triggered a legal challenge on grounds that this contravened the constitutional requirement for continuous registration between elections. As millions of voters were allowed little over a month to register in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions, civil society groups voiced concerns about the potential disenfranchisement of large numbers of citizens. Defying past practice, the authorities further refused an independent audit of the new rolls.

The road ahead

Mr. Hichilema, a business tycoon, embarks upon a difficult task of putting Zambia’s public finances in order. As his government negotiates a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he can count on the support of the country’s veteran economists and central bankers who have publicly advocated such a deal. Africa’s second largest producer of copper, Zambia last year defaulted on around $12 billion in external debt. The government benefited from a G-20 initiative on concessional terms of repayment on bilateral lending following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Private bondholders have, however, declined Lusaka’s plea to defer interest payments in the absence of an IMF rescue and reforms of its domestic finances. They also have concerns about all creditors being on an equal footing. Their concerns relate especially to the usually opaque terms that the Chinese investors enter into in their trading with African countries.

While the economic priorities of the new government in Lusaka undoubtedly need urgent attention, there could possibly be no trade-off with the consolidation of political and civil liberties that have been a major casualty in recent years. The country was described as one of the fastest eroding democracies in the world, by the 2021 report of the Varieties of Democracy Project. The millions who voted Mr. Hichilema to office would be quite anxious to see that stain erased at the earliest. For the incumbent, that would be no small feat.

Source: The Hindu

4. The rules for taxing interest on Provident Fund

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

Following its Budget announcement in February, the Finance Ministry has now notified the rules for taxing interest income on contributions made to the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) beyond Rs 2.5 lakh (for private sector employees) and Rs 5 lakh (for government sector employees). Beginning this fiscal, the government will tax interest on contributions made in excess of these limits, with separate accounts to be maintained within the provident fund account for 2021-22 and subsequent years for taxable contribution and non-taxable contribution made by an individual.

What is the tax on EPF contributions?

In February, the Budget proposed that tax exemption will not be available on interest income on PF contributions exceeding Rs 2.5 lakh in a year. Although this has been a concern for salaried individuals contributing to EPF, it will impact only those who contribute more than Rs 2.5 lakh in a year — and it will not affect their existing corpus or the aggregate annual interest on that.

In March, the government introduced an amendment to the Finance Bill, 2021 in which it proposed to double the cap on contribution from Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh for tax-exempt interest income, if the contribution is made to a fund where there is no contribution by the employer. With this, the government provided relief for contributions made to the General Provident Fund that is available only to government employees and there is no contribution by the employer.

What are the rules to enable this taxation?

The rules were notified by the Finance Ministry on August 31. In an amendment to the Income-Tax Rules, 1962 that will come into effect from April 1, 2022, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has inserted Rule 9D, according to which income through interest accrued during the previous year that is not exempt (over Rs 2.5 lakh for private and Rs 5 lakh for government employees) shall be computed as the interest accrued during the previous year in the taxable contribution account. Separate accounts within the provident fund account shall be maintained during 2021-2022 and subsequent years for an individual’s taxable contribution and non-taxable contribution.

The EPFO, however, is yet to formalise the separation of taxable and non-taxable contribution in their accounts. Some EPF board members said the task to separate the accounts for such contributors will take time. “Data will need to be aggregated and then the separate accounting process has to be determined for such accounts. Details are yet to be finalised,” a member said.

The CBDT has stated that the closing balance on March 31, 2021 and the interest accrual on it will be treated as the non-taxable component. The taxable contribution account will consist of contributions made by the individual in the account during the previous year (2021-22) and subsequent years in excess of the threshold limit.

Why the proposal?

The Budget proposal had noted that the government has found instances where some employees are contributing huge amounts to these funds and are getting the benefit of tax exemption at all stages — contribution, interest accumulation and withdrawal. With an aim to exclude high net-worth individuals (HNIs) from the benefit of high tax-free interest income on their large contributions, the government has proposed to impose a threshold limit for tax exemption. This will be applicable for all contributions beginning April 1, 2021.

“This fund is actually for the benefit of the workers, and workers are not going to be affected by it,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said while presenting the Budget in February. “… It is only for big-ticket money which comes into it because it has tax benefits and also (is) assured about 8% return. You find huge amounts, some to the extent of Rs 1 crore also being put into this each month. For somebody who puts Rs 1 crore into this fund each month, what should be his salary? So, for him to give both tax concessions and also an assured 8% return, we thought this is probably not comparable with an employee with about Rs 2 lakh.”

How will it get taxed?

For an individual in the higher tax bracket of 30%, the interest income on contribution above Rs 2.5 lakh would get taxed at the same marginal tax rate. What this means is that if an individual contributes Rs 3 lakh every year to the provident fund (including the voluntary PF contribution) then the interest on his contribution above Rs 2.5 lakh —that is, Rs 50,000 — will be taxed. So, the interest income of Rs 4,250 (8.5% on Rs 50,000) will be taxed at the marginal rate. If the individual falls in the 30% tax bracket, he/ she will have to pay tax of Rs 1,325.

For an individual contributing Rs 12 lakh in a year, the tax will be applicable on interest income on Rs 9.5 lakh (Rs 12 lakh minus Rs 2.5 lakh). In this case, the tax liability would amount to Rs 25,200.

Will it get taxed for perpetuity?

As per the notification, the interest income on the additional contribution (over Rs 2.5 lakh for private and Rs 5 lakh for government employees) for a year will get taxed every year. This means that if your annual contribution to PF in FY22 is Rs 10 lakh, the interest income on Rs 7.5 lakh will get taxed not only for FY22 but also for all subsequent years. If the PF contribution is the same for FY23, the tax will have be paid on interest income on Rs 15 lakh. Also, if you earned interest of 8.5% last year, and if you fall in the highest tax bracket, then the following year you will earn effectively around 5.85% on the additional contribution (assuming the interest rate is unchanged).

Source: The Indian Express