AFSPA's Footprint Shrinks But Time it Disappeared; What Imran's Exit Will Mean for India
Inflation ahead as LPG and toll taxes hiked, Bihar power project affected by Russia sanctions, slain Westland reborn under Pratilipi banner, Nitish says if you drink, you aren’t Indian
A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
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Snapshot of the day
April 1, 2022
No drip-dose hike in fuel prices today, but the price of commercial LPG was hiked by Rs 250 per cylinder, and now costs Rs 2,253. Jet fuel prices were hiked by 2%, the seventh increase this year, to an all-time high of Rs 1,12,924.83 per kl. The National Highways Authority of India has raised toll taxes by Rs 10-65 one-way for light and commercial vehicles respectively. Added to fuel hikes, this will cause sharp inflation across all goods.
As per RBI data, India’s current account deficit has widened to $23 bn or 2.7% of GDP in the December quarter, the highest in nine years. Boosted by a very low base a year ago, year on year growth in core sectors in February was 5.8% but it actually contracted by 5.3% compared to January. The rupee ended the financial year 3.5% down against the US dollar, as compared to a 3.4% gain in the previous year.
India’s electricity shortage in March was its worst since October 2021, driven by a surge in demand, a Reuters analysis of government data showed. A fall in the national coal inventory is forcing the government to withhold supply to other sectors.
US Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh was unusually blunt when he spoke of consequences for any country trying to “backfill sanctions” imposed on Russia. He also reminded New Delhi about China and Moscow’s ‘no-limits partnership’. Singh, seen as the architect of American sanctions targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, his inner circle and the Russian financial system, cautioned India against expecting Russia to come to its defence if China were to violate the Line of Actual Control. He didn’t promise the US would defend India either, but perhaps such an assurance would have been – as they say in America – above his pay grade. India’s balancing act is becoming harder and more costly, as the Ukraine conflict drags on. Around 40-50 Indians are still in Ukraine, and efforts are on to bring them back to India.
The Hindu says that Singh’s words mirror comments by European Union and German officials in Delhi this week, who said that India must not take “economic advantage” of Western sanctions, nor seek to dilute them during the war. UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss also delivered a similar message yesterday in India. According to Reuters, Indian oil refiners have bought more than 13 million barrels of Russian oil since the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. India bought 16 million barrels of Russian oil in all of 2021.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar in Delhi today but nothing of substance had been put out by either side at the time of publication. The ‘Ukraine’ word did not even figure in the Indian minister’s opening remarks to the media, which skirted the ongoing war with a prize-winning euphemism:
Our meeting today takes place in a difficult international environment quite apart from the pandemic. India…has always been in favour of resolving differences and disputes through dialogue and diplomacy.”
In that spirit, the official MEA statement at the end of the meeting added nothing beyond what India has said at the UN several times already:
EAM emphasised the importance of cessation of violence and ending hostilities. Differences and disputes should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy and by respect for international law, UN Charter, sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.
Construction of state-run NTPC’s Barh thermal power project in Bihar, in which Russian entities are involved, has been affected by sanctions, the government told Parliament. Following the exclusion of Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system, supplies from Russian entities and visits by Russian engineers and technical advisors may also be affected.
Authorities in Cachar, Assam, have written to the state government and the Union Home Ministry accusing Mizoram of violating the agreement between the two states by building roads and houses in disputed border areas. In August 2021, the states signed an agreement to restore peace and to deploy the Central Reserve Police Force in the border areas, following the death of six policemen in clashes.
While addressing a gathering in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had claimed that there were no deaths in the state during the third wave of Covid-19. A fact check finds there were actually 699 deaths. This passed uncontested in the mainstream media.
A Covid working group of NTAGI will review data of the Serum Institute of India’s Covovax, intended for those aged 12 and up. The drug regulator had approved Covovax for emergency use in adults on December 28, 2021, and in the 12-17 years age group subject to certain conditions on March 9, 2022.
Bharat Biotech, which has been very coy about data on vaccines and trials which should have been in the public domain, got a Telangana court to order The Wire (a co-founder of The India Cable), to take down 14 stories without hearing the website. When The Wire filed a counter against this SLAPP suit, Bharat Biotech’s lawyer said he wasn’t ready, and the hearing was adjourned for three weeks. Three more weeks in which the stories will stay off the air.
The fate of 23,000 Indian medical students in China is up in the air as the country is refusing to give them visas. Hear from some of them.
Human Rights Watch alleges that the Indian authorities have forcibly returned a Rohingya woman to Myanmar. International law prohibits the forced return of refugees if their lives or freedom are threatened. About 40,000 Rohingya who fled abuse by Myanmar are said to be in India, and have been consistently threatened with deportation by ruling party leaders.
“Data on the eviction and relocation of tribal people from forests and protected areas is not collated in the Ministry,” Ashwini Choubey, Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, has told Parliament. Also, see this discussion of how India’s Adivasis, the world’s biggest indigenous group of nearly 110 million, are being criminalised through the legal system.
The Lok Sabha yesterday witnessed sharp exchanges between Congress MPs and BJP ministers after Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed concern over a reduction in budgetary allocations for MGNREGA. Gandhi alleged a 35% reduction in the current budget compared to 2020 and several states’ MGNREGA accounts are in the red by almost Rs 5,000 crore, causing delayed payments. Minister Giriraj Singh denied this and accused her of “politicising the issue”.
Westland Books does not have a new owner. The publishing company which Amazon closed on February 1 has not been purchased and formally ended its existence as an Amazon company yesterday. But starting today, reports Scroll, a new publishing venture will take its place. A new division of Pratilipi.com, the online platform backed by Nasadiya Technologies, is being set up by largely the same team that ran Westland Books.
Amarjit Sinha, former Union secretary for rural development and, more significantly, former adviser to PM Modi, has been appointed member of the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB), joining chairperson Mallika Srinivasan, who had requested the Centre to relieve her of her excessive burden. Sinha will take up most of that load.
“Gautam Adani’s new private jet ― his fifth ― arrived in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. The plane was given a water salute at the airport. Since 2014, Adani’s wealth has increased by 432% ― and his group runs Ahmedabad airport.” This is a translation of a Divya Bhaskar (Gujarati) caption yesterday.
Himanta denies deaths by NRC
Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on Wednesday claimed in the state Assembly that no lives were lost during the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state. He submitted that 31 people had died in transit camps for declared foreigners (read detention centres), but there was “no evidence of death due to NRC updating exercise.”
However, as Citizens for Justice and Peace revealed earlier, at least 58 people had died due to citizenship-related issues by July 2019. Newsclick reminds us that even if we exclude the deaths in detention centres (many under inexplicable circumstances), deaths of people dealing with IMDT, D Voter or suspected foreigner cases, we are still left with deaths by suicide due to anxiety. At least 33 deaths were connected with the NRC.
AFSPA’s footprint shrinks, but time it disappeared
The Union government has reduced the number of disturbed areas under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. It no longer applies to Imphal West (Imphal, Lamphel, City, Singjamei, Sekmai, Lamsang, Patsoi), Imphal East (Porompat, Heingang, Lamlai Irilbung), Thoubal, Bishnupur, Kakching and Jiribam.
This is far from a momentous step by the BJP government, because AFSPA will remain in force in Nagaland’s Mon district, where 13 civilians were killed in a botched Army operation in December 2021. Civil outrage following the Mon incident compelled the Union government to constitute a committee on AFSPA. Now, there is no admission that AFSPA is fundamentally undemocratic which should be removed entirely. But hopeful journalists are asking if this means international media will be allowed access.
Five months too late, HC says unity no reed in the wind
Arsheed Yusuf, Inayat Altaf Sheikh and Showkat Ahmed Ganai have been in the Agra District Jail for five months. They were arrested on October 26, 2021 for comments supposedly made following Pakistan’s victory over India in a cricket match. Suddenly, the Allahabad High Court has granted bail to them, with a dash of Iqbal. Judge Ajay Bhanot said: “The unity of India is not made of bamboo reeds which will bend to the passing winds of empty slogans… Constitutional values create an indissoluble Union of India. Every citizen of the country is the custodian, and the State is the sentinel of the unity of India…” The judge quoted three lines from Iqbal’s ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’ to stress the “constancy of Indian values and perpetuity of Indian people”. So why were they in jail for so long? Where’s the poetry in that?
Unlocking of Assam NRC biometrics sought
The Assam Public Works, the original petitioner in the Supreme Court that led to the update of the 1951 NRC in the state, moved the apex court on Tuesday requesting the unlocking of the biometrics of around 27 lakh individuals collected during the claims and objections process for inclusion in the citizenship register. In tune with the BJP state government’s promise, it also prayed for a direction to the authorities to issue Aadhaar numbers to those whose biometrics were collected.
Biometric details of over 27 lakh applicants of the 40 lakh-plus left out of the draft NRC list were collected. Their biometric data is locked and they can’t apply for Aadhaar enrolment, because the Registrar General of India had not yet notified the final NRC.
The Long Cable
Imran Khan’s end is good news for region but Modi still clueless on Pakistan
His majority in the national assembly gone, Imran Khan’s controversial tenure as Pakistan’s prime minister is coming to a rapid and inglorious end. He was brought to power with the support of the Pakistani military, which first engineered the ouster and disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and then lined up behind the former cricketer’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the 2018 elections. The brass’s thinking was that a ‘hybrid regime’ – in which a populist prime minister officially runs the economic and political show while the generals occupy the commanding heights of ‘security’ – would give them the control they wanted while insulating them from the reputational losses that Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf had inflicted on the military.
The hybrid regime allowed the army to notch up a tactical victory in Afghanistan, with the Taliban capturing power, but Imran Khan’s failure to strike a balance between the United States and China has not helped Pakistan stabilise an economy buffeted by the global slowdown triggered by the pandemic. On Imran’s watch, relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE also deteriorated. The absence of indulgent benefactors, coupled with Imran’s own incompetence and impetuousness in economic matters has brought the hybrid regime to a swift end. The military has signalled its desire for a new arrangement and the judiciary too has adjusted its sails to the prevailing winds.
Whether the PML(N)’s Shahbaz Sharif is sworn in as the next prime minister with the backing of the combined opposition or early elections are called, the military is confident that its own position will not be challenged. Exiled to London, Nawaz Sharif still wants the army’s wings clipped but neither the PPP nor his own party intend to rock the boat for now.
For Pakistan, the assertion of popular will is a positive step, even if its effects are only visible in parliament and not the actual structures of power. However, every new political arrangement produces new dynamics and negotiations and it is possible that the military may be compelled to concede some ground, especially in its disastrous handling of Balochistan and its policy of providing support to extremist groups.
Ordinarily, the impending change would have provided New Delhi with an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, currently at their nadir thanks to Imran Khan’s irresponsible rhetoric and name-calling and the BJP’s own policies. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the Modi government has no policy towards Pakistan. What it has is a domestic, election-driven policy based on hostility. Despite the promising start made by Modi in 2014, he quickly realised that tension – and even the occasional descent into violence – is far more beneficial for his government than the idea of engagement. With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections just two years away, it is unlikely that the BJP will want to move away from this tried and tested template, especially given its dramatic decision to rescind Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan’s ouster provides both Pakistan and India a fresh chance to dial back on the tension of the past few years. It is hard to see how the two sides can pick up the pieces of what remains of the relationship since Pakistan is wedded to the ‘Kashmir issue’ and Modi’s decision to read down Article 370 was intended to remove Jammu and Kashmir as a topic for bilateral dialogue altogether. What is needed, however, are baby steps, and the first move that must be taken by the new government is the upgrading of diplomatic relations back to the level of high commissioners. Once senior-level envoys are in place, a future course of action can be identified.
Actor Will Smith’s Oscar slap has raised the bar for men in high places defending their wives. Rishi Sunak, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and son-in-law of NR Narayan Murthy, has had to face questions about his wife’s investments in her father’s firm Infosys. Last night, he told the BBC that people should not “come at” Akshata Murthy over Infosys’ links to Russia. Sunak also defended his father-in-law. “I have nothing but enormous pride and admiration for everything that he’s achieved, and no amount of attempted smearing is going to make me change that.” Sunak joked about not reacting like Will Smith: “Both Will Smith and me having our wives attacked – at least I didn’t get up and slap anybody, which is good”.
Private Eye has a different spin on the Sunak-Smith connection:
Prime Number: 20th
For the 20th time,
the SBI has been authorised to issue and encash electoral bonds through its 29 authorised branches from today to 10.04.2022. Opaque funding of political parties is awaiting a full hearing by the Supreme Court since 2017.
An immersive experience of the ‘Dravidian Model’, as the DMK inaugurates its Delhi office today.
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
“Drip-fed with nuggets of rewritten history through social media and popular culture, the Hindu vigilantes leading the charge against India’s Muslim population rationalize their bigotry as justice for past wrongs,” writes Debashish Roy Chowdhury in Time magazine.
The Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill 2022, impinges on privacy by creating and storing a database of biological and physical samples, and detailed profiles, writes Vrinda Bhandari. Most egregiously, all metrics will be stored for 75 years from the date of collection, without any protection of confidentiality.
Apar Gupta and Abhinav Sikri write that the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill 2022 erodes the privacy of those convicted of crime and the ordinary citizen.
The quest for one truth, one version and the promotion of fake normalcy by the Jammu & Kashmir administration is destined to fail. Homogenising journalism in Kashmir to report only the official version of events will never bring normalcy, writes Bharat Bhushan.
Kanav N Sahgal writes that the legal framing to recognise non-traditional heterosexual marriages exists in Indian jurisprudence. The time has come to extend these rights to homosexual people.
The first Muslim judge of a high court in colonial times, Syed Mahmood’s professional conduct offers a counterpoint to the declining standards in the Indian judiciary, write Mohammad Sajjad and Md. Zeeshan Ahmad.
The pandemic-induced crisis is not just a wake-up call but also an opportunity to improve access to health services for tuberculosis. It should not be squandered, writes Priya Dutt.
Anand Patwardhan writes that the merger of the National Film Archives and Films Division is an assault on the Constitution. Our archived history is in danger of disappearing or being re-cut and rewritten.
Fali Nariman remembers CK Daphtary and his legendary wit, inside and outside the courtroom.
India’s immediate neighbourhood also has opinions on geopolitics. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The Indian Cable) speaks to Kanak Mani Dixit, publisher, editor and writer in Nepal, to understand the state of Nepal-China ties and how it affects India, and the problems bedevilling South Asia.
‘Data Matters, Why, how often and what kind?’ Sonalde Desai, PC Mohanan, Mahesh Vyas and Ashwini Deshpande discuss the pitfalls that data collectors should watch out for, the role of technology and how to expand data infrastructure while protecting individual privacy.
Over and Out
‘Thoda ruk Shah Rukh’ ― this Disney+ Hotstar ad has SRK back, exactly as we have known him, wry, deadpan and totally himself.
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.