Afghan Dam India Built Now in Taliban Hands; Twitter 'Interfering in Political Process,' Says Rahul

Plus: Setback for ISRO as GSLV fails, but Chandrayaan-2 confirms water on moon, UN experts seek moratorium on spyware, Balakot was ‘escalatory codex’, Gurkhas in UK on hunger strike for equal pension

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
August 13, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In Afghanistan, the rapidly advancing Taliban have now taken over Salma Dam east of Herat, known formally as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam. Reports from the site say the government soldiers guarding the facility surrendered Friday afternoon.

Inaugurated in 2016, the dam is the most visible outcome of the $3 billion worth of development aid India provided to Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. “[India’s] consulates have closed (will we ever reopen them? My hunch is perhaps, never). All that we did in Afghanistan for 20 years is in jeopardy”, says Nirupama Rao, India’s former foreign secretary. “Wish we had publicly expressed our deep reservations and opposition to the US withdrawal. Plus been more energetic about building a strategy of opposition to what we are seeing as a sickening supplication to the Taliban. But we climbed on the bus – a bus without wheels. How will history judge us? And Pakistan has the last laugh.”

The cryogenic stage of a GSLV launch vehicle carrying an earth observation satellite failed on ignition yesterday, and it probably plunged into the Andaman Sea. The satellite was designed for quick monitoring of extreme weather events. It is a setback for the space programme, which has focused on launch services for heavy geostationary satellites. There could be implications for future projects, including the ISRO-NASA NISAR mission for earth observation by radar.  

ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter has detected water on the moon's surface. Researchers who analysed the data obtained by the orbiter’s imaging infrared spectrometer (IIRS) said: “There was widespread lunar hydration and unambiguous detection of OH and H2O signatures on the moon between 29 degrees north and 62 degrees north latitude.” The findings were published in Current Science

Back here on earth, an incident in Kanpur where a Muslim rickshaw puller was thrashed, while his minor daughter pleaded that he be spared as he was asked to chant Jai Sri Ram, went viral. The police were pressured into picking up three people from the mob, but it continued to make its presence felt outside the police station. 

The Delhi High Court has issued a contempt notice to SDM Southwest Chandra Shekhar for sending a notice to the residence of a woman who, along with her partner, had sought to register their interfaith marriage under the Special Marriage Act. Following the intimation, the woman was detained by her family and was released only after her partner filed a habeas corpus plea. Justice Najmi Waziri said it is prohibited to send notices which could jeopardise the plans of applicants or pose a “threat to their lives or limb”.

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has alleged that the Haryana government is slapping false cases on farmers and said it won’t deter them from protesting against the Centre’s farm laws. He warned the state government “not to interfere” in their peaceful agitation.

Indian provided Pakistan with the final draft of a possible agreement on the Kashmir issue in March 2007, following nearly three years of secret negotiations before talks stopped because of a political crisis in Islamabad, according to a new paper authored by Happymon Jacob for Georgetown University. It is based on interviews with Indian and Pakistani officials involved in back-channel negotiations and reveals hitherto unknown aspects of the efforts of former Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf and Indian prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

The South China Morning Post reports: “Attire-shaming is among the threats that Indian girls and women face, along with the possibility of violence and death from acts by men such as dowry harassment, domestic abuse, female foeticide and acid attacks. Communities in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state with 200 million residents, have often made the news for their views on Western dressing, especially jeans.”

UN experts seek surveillance tech moratorium

UN human rights experts urged countries to temporarily suspend the sale and transfer of surveillance technology. This follows allegations that Israeli-made Pegasus spyware was used to monitor politicians, journalists and activists around the world, including in India. “It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone,” the experts said in a statement. They sought a global moratorium until international regulation is adopted. 

Opposition corners government on Parliament

The government is embarrassed by loss of control over Parliament, despite its overwhelming majority. On the important question of outsiders in the Rajya Sabha, there is a discrepancy in the government’s defence. At a press conference, leader of the House Piyush Goyal said there were 30 marshals, whereas Venkaiah Naidu said there were 42. 

The Opposition is spiritedly questioning the road-rolling of parliamentary procedures. In a joint statement, they said, “The monsoon session of Parliament was deliberately derailed by the government, which has scant respect for the institution of parliamentary democracy.” Parliamentary leaders also wrote to Chairman of the House Venkaiah Naidu protesting about thuggish management. The RJD’s Manoj Jha spoke of the ‘Museumisation’ of Parliament and asked tough questions, as did other parties like TMC, about “Missing Modi” in the monsoon session. Speaker Om Prakash Birla and Vice President Naidu discussed the “unfortunate sequence of events in Parliament”

Twitter vs Congress war escalates

Twitter yesterday “clarified” that Congress accounts including Rahul Gandhi’s were suspended for violations of Twitter’s privacy rules, as well as Indian law, which was brought to Twitter’s attention by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. After seven days, the official handle of the principal Opposition party remains suspended. Other blocked handles include those of Congress’ Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra units, the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee and the Daman & Diu Congress Committee. Congress galvanised its base and supporters are sporting Rahul Gandhi’s photograph and name on their accounts, risking deplatforming due to Twitter’s strict impersonation rules. 

Rahul Gandhi has hit out at Twitter for vitiating Indian democracy in a video statement. “It’s obvious now that Twitter is actually not a neutral, objective platform. It is a biased platform. It’s something that listens to what the government of the day says, he said. “By shutting down my Twitter [account] they are interfering in our political process. A company is making its business to define our politics. And as a politician I don’t like that.”

The BJP had levelled a similar charge earlier this year when Twitter labelled a tweet by its national spokesperson Sambit Patra as “manipulated media”. But Twitter did not block Patra’s account. Or the account of BJP leaders like Amit Malviya for violations more egregious than what Gandhi is accused of. Malviya had posted a video of the Hathras rape victim on Twitter last year, with her face clearly visible. 

‘Terrorist’ diktat in Kashmir

Words matter, and when the subject is Kashmir, they matter a lot. Newslaundry reports that the press in Kashmir is being forced to replace ‘militant’ with ‘terrorist’ in headlines and reports. Top editors claim the authorities ― unnamed for fear of reprisals ― are compelling them to change terminology used for decades, but newsroom staff say editors aren’t blameless, either. As the Indian government has tightened the screws on Kashmir generally and the media in particular, many papers have restricted coverage of politics and conflict, and avoided holding the administration to account.

‘Militant’ is seen as a neutral term, whereas ‘terrorist’ indicates disapproval, regardless of motivations. ‘Militants’ are perceived to target security forces while ‘terrorists’ target innocent civilians ‘to spread terror’. Over the last 30 years, the terminology ― even within the military in Kashmir ― has moved from ‘militants’ to ‘anti-national elements’, to ‘terrorists’.

Book Extract

Advantage ‘big man’: The ‘escalatory codex’ written at Balakot

Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Deputy NSA Rajinder Khanna was worried. “They’re trying to wriggle out of this again,” Khanna told us. “Don’t you think? We know them. The ISI is reaching out to you and selling you spoiled goods and embedding doubt, so you think it’s not them. This is their modus. Our troops are dead.”

We had many questions for Khanna. If the grid in Kashmir was so all-seeing, how did Pulwama happen at all? Explosives, sourced in India, had been transported across the Valley and given to a young man reported missing by his parents in March 2018, who appeared on multiple lists compiled by IB and the state police as a likely insurgent, who was “under surveillance.” There had been at least four warnings about a Pulwama-style attack, we had been told by an IB officer. Pakistan missed the bomb plot, but India did too. The Jaish was in the frame but not the ISI. Khanna did not agree: “India is not infallible, but Pakistan chooses not to look,” he said. “And when Pakistan ‘slips up’ by not preventing an attack, it is Indian blood that is spilled.” Could we see the forensics for Pulwama, we asked. “They will come,” Khanna assured us.

Twelve days after the Pulwama attack, Indian Air Force jets struck a hillside in Balakot, a town north of Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan. Indian reporters claimed that three precision munitions, bought from Israel, known as Spice 2000, a variant of the US JDAM used in Afghanistan – a 2000-pound dumb bomb strapped into a GPS or electro-optically guided cradle – had destroyed a Jaish base, with up to 350 fighters killed. 

As the Pakistan press exploded, fighter jets from there entered Indian airspace, dropped a few bombs, and left for home, having chosen to hit nothing. However, during a dogfight, the theatre of this skirmish turned lethal, with an Indian MiG-21 brought down, its pilot captured.

India immediately re-nosed the event, claiming that as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman crashed, he managed to shoot down a Pakistan F16 jet, packing this claim with radar images, electronic signatures, and transcripts. All of this was roundly rejected by Pakistan, whose gesture of returning the wing commander, live on TV, won the optics battle, and plaudits from fearful peacemakers at home and around the world.

Washington, some of whose F16s Pakistan’s Air Force had flown into India, stayed out of it. European, Australian, and American intelligence officers and analysts – with less to lose – said they had yet to see any evidence to back the fatality figures, warning that the Balakot camp was defunct, three missiles failed to hit, through a targeting error or by choice, and no Pakistani F16 was missing. Ambiguity and circumstantial evidence ruled the day. What was brought down, certainly, was an Indian military helicopter, struck by friendly fire, with six crew members tragically dying. 

We talked to Ajit Doval. A report on Pulwama was coming, Doval assured us, and it would lay bare the ISI’s involvement. Balakot, he said, was pivotal for India. “What really matters is the operation itself, that India has changed its strategic calculations.” A new escalatory codex was written. The threat of nuclear weapons, deployed by both sides, no longer prevented tactical strikes. Covert attacks by Islamabad-backed forces would now draw conventional responses from Delhi. “This India will not sit on its hands or differentiate between Pakistan and its proxies,” he said.

This was clear, but what about the proactive operations that got India here, like sculpting the life and death of Burhan Wani, we asked, and pitching Kashmir into chaos out of which the revoking of Article 370 was realized, but so was Pulwama? Intelligence agencies creating the conditions for legislators to implement policy switches, was, after all, a standard ploy of the CIA and others. RAW-IB were now doing what outfits around the world had done for years. Ajit Doval, who headed off to a meeting with the Saudis, did not agree – or disagree.

Three months after Pulwama, Narendra Modi and the BJP won a landslide election, in which there was one of the highest-ever turnouts. That the persuasive spectacle of the Balakot strike had been on Modi’s mind, and Ajit Doval’s, was accidentally revealed when police in Mumbai began investigating tampering in TV viewing data, where statistics that purport to show audience share for TV channels and against which advertising revenues are raised, were said to be being manipulated. A charge sheet filed carried an appendix that contained a transcript of WhatsApp chats between Partho Dasgupta, the former chief of the Broadcast Audience Research Council, and Arnab Goswami, of Republic TV.

Goswami wrote to Dasgupta about the impending top-secret Balakot strikes, three days before they happened, a source telling him that people would be “elated,” which was good for the “big man” in “this season.”

(Excerpted with permission from Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Juggernaut Books, 360 pages, Rs 699, due out August 16)

Can India weather a third wave?

In a survey conducted by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, 25% of 8,800 respondents noted that they “have very little confidence” in India’s ability to handle a possible third Covid wave in August-December 2021. Another 13% said they have “no confidence at all”, while 4% had no opinion. But 26% said they are “highly confident” while about 32% said they are “somewhat confident” that India is well prepared.

Prime number: 1,243

Prime number: 1,243
That's the number of villages affected by floods in Uttar Pradesh, as per state government officials.

Deep Dive

Today, lawyer Surendra Gadling was released from Taloja Jail on temporary bail on “humanitarian grounds”, to attend the death anniversary rituals of his mother. Sixteen people have been arrested since June 2018 for their role in an alleged Maoist conspiracy to foment an “uprising” against the Modi government, traced to the Elgaar Parishad (“Loud Assembly”) festival in Pune on December 31, 2017 commemorating a Dalit military victory in nearby Bhima Koregaon. 

Although two local men with longstanding links to the Hindu right were initially accused, by April, police were investigating a convoluted plot involving “urban Naxals” – a catchphrase for activists and intellectuals – inciting Dalits to rise against the government. The Guardian Long Read on the case of the 16 activists framed in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case.

Another peculiar beef case

The Allahabad High Court recently quashed a detention order passed under the National Security Act, 1980 against three men accused of cutting beef in secrecy in their own house, for sale. The Bench observed that the incident at worst affected law and order, and not public order. “We also do not know whether the cause was poverty, lack of employment or hunger,” said the court.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India is impossibly short of vaccinating its entire adult population against Covid-19 by the end of 2021, writes V Sridhar in Frontline magazine.

Listen Up

Anupama Chopra talks to Raghu Karnad about Bollywood capturing Mumbai city on the screen. 

Watch Out

Historian and intellectual giant Irfan Habib turned 90 yesterday. Watch eminent historians and economists fete him at the symposium,‘In Defence of History’.

Over and Out

On Saturday morning, Gyanraj Rai headed to Downing Street and began a hunger protest about his pension. He hasn’t eaten since. “Better to die than be a coward” is a motto of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, who have been an integral part of the British Army for more than 200 years. Former soldiers like Rai say they are prepared to starve to death if the UK government does not agree to make their pension equal to the British soldiers’ they fought alongside for 20 years.

In Goa, the disappearance of covered terraces and mother-of-pearl shell windows is a loss to architecture. And the Portuguese influence in the state is now wearing thin.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.