After US Rout, India Faces New Challenges; UP Withdraws Riot Cases

Plus: Reuters investigates Danish killing, farmers’ convention at Singhu, Komagata Maru memorial defaced by ‘racists’, after pandemic, Indians spend 4.4 hours on screens for no earthly reason

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
August 25, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Sociologist, widely read author and caste theorist Gail Omvedt passed away this morning, aged 80. Born in Minneapolis, she had taken Indian citizenship in 1983. A significant voice of the Dalit movement, she published numerous books on the anti-caste movement, Dalit politics, and women’s struggles in India. As an activist, she was involved in the Dalit, environmental, women’s and farmers’ movements. An alumnus of UC Berkeley and a significant voice in the social sciences, she was married to the activist Bharat Patankar and lived at Kasegaon, Maharashtra.

Union cabinet minister Narayan Rane was arrested yesterday. The ex-Shiv Sainik and ex-Congressman, now in the BJP, had offered to slap Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for allegedly faltering about the year of Indian independence. Rane was arrested in Ratnagiri, where he was travelling with the BJP’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra. While granting bail, the Mahad Magistrate recorded that his arrest was justified, but custodial interrogation was not. It is the first time in 20 years that a Union cabinet minister has been arrested. In 2001, Murasoli Maran and TR Baalu were picked up by J Jayalalithaa.

Tamil Nadu has again shown the way. To combat growing unemployment, it has launched an urban jobs scheme, along the lines of the MNREGA, guaranteeing 100 days of employment for the jobless in cities. It has set aside Rs 100 crore for the pilot scheme.

Since the Central government had not probed the Pegasus spyware scandal, West Bengal has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court explaining why it is well within its powers to set up the commission headed by Justice (retired) Madan Lokur. It has cited List II and III of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. But West Bengal counsel assured the court the commission would not start its work till the Supreme Court disposes of the current Pegasus related PILs before it.

The Supreme Court has given the Centre a month to respond to a petition of the Maharashtra government seeking census data on other backward classes (OBC) in the state for reserving seats in local bodies. Following discussions with the Registrar General, the Census Commissioner and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Centre sought three weeks. The state had approached the top court to seek information about OBCs in Maharashtra, which is available with the Centre in the 2011 Census.

The 24-year-old woman from eastern Uttar Pradesh, who had accused BSP MP Atul Rai of rape in 2019, has died in a Delhi hospital, a week after she and her male friend set themselves ablaze outside the gates of the Supreme Court. She had alleged that the police in Varanasi, where she had filed a case, were colluding with the jailed MP and his relatives. The woman’s friend died of burn injuries on Saturday.

​​Nearly one-third of Indian men and women suffer from hypertension but surprisingly, more women get treatment than men, finds The Lancet. Quoting 2019 data, its study shows that 30% of women and 32% of men are hypertensive, but 35% of women get treatment, compared to 25% of men. The study analysed blood pressure measurements from over 10 crore people taken over three decades in 184 countries. 

Terror accused Pragya Thakur, BJP MP from Bhopal, whom Modi has apparently not forgiven for praising Godse, has said that petrol and diesel are not expensive and high prices and inflation are only Congress propaganda. Even Union Minister Hardeep Puri, who relentlessly springs to the government’s defence, has said, “The central government is very sensitive to this issue…  I see that in the coming months, relief will come.”  

The Reporters’ Collective has put up a Wall of Grief memorialising lives lost during the pandemic. The public can submit details of family and friends lost, and the database can be used by media and researchers to keep alive the debate on the public health disaster. 

In The Financial Times, James Crabtree reviews two books that look at the rise of autocracy and inequality in India: “Were New Delhi to shift permanently in a more autocratic direction, taking 1.3 billion people with it, global democracy itself would shift back to become a fringe political pursuit.” 


India, Russia will struggle to ‘coordinate’

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday discussed a “coordinated” strategy in Afghanistan, while national security advisors from the five BRICS countries met virtually. The Hindu reports that the two leaders agreed to set up a “permanent bilateral channel” on Afghanistan to discuss regional security, countering radicalisation, the spread of “terrorist ideology”, and the proliferation of drugs.

These issues also figured in the NSAs’ meet, in the lead-up to next month’s BRICS leaders’ summit, which India will chair. There are major differences within the grouping, with China and Russia broadly aligning and maintaining a diplomatic presence in Kabul. Earlier, Taliban delegations have been hosted by them, most recently by China on July 28. How much can India and Russia coordinate their strategies in such a scenario?


Manipur hills, valley districts at loggerheads

Tensions are running high in BJP-administered Manipur between the hill areas and the valley districts after the state government proposed to bring the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Councils Bill, 2021, during the ongoing Assembly session, but did not actually table it. The bill will replace the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 to provide more autonomy to the Hill Areas Committee and the district councils. Hill tribal bodies believe the bill would ensure equal development and unity. But civil bodies in valley districts argue that it would promote disunity and advance the objectives of the Naga Autonomous Territorial Council and Kuki Autonomous Territorial Council, which they oppose. 


Reuters investigates Danish killing

When Afghan forces called a Special Forces major who was left with photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, a Taliban fighter asked why Indians were being brought into the battle. The officer said: “Don’t shoot him. He’s a journalist.” 

“We already killed that guy,” he replied.

The murder of Pulitzer-winning photographer Danish Siddiqui did not get due attention from the Indian government. Reuters has now carried a detailed report on events leading to his death,  Danish’s family said they believe he was brutally murdered and his body mutilated. “We reiterate our demand that the matter should be pursued to bring the perpetrators of this horrific crime to justice,” they told Reuters in a statement.


‘Creamy layer’ not just about money

The Supreme Court yesterday said state governments cannot determine the ‘creamy layer’ of a backward class solely on income or economic criteria, to deprive the group the benefit of reservations in jobs and admission to educational institutions. A bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose pointed out that the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Indra Sawhney case (Mandal Commission case, 1992) has clearly laid down that social, economic and other factors must be taken into account. 

The top court struck down a 2016 notification of the Haryana government denying reservation to backward classes earning over Rs 6 lakh annually. It directed it to bring out a fresh notification to determine the ‘creamy layer’ among OBCs within three months, considering criteria other than economic. 


The Long Cable

The twain shall meet: In east and west, challenges await India post Afghanistan

Sushant Singh

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Replace ‘go bankrupt’ with ‘screw it up’, and this conversation from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises aptly describes the US handling of Afghanistan. There are multiple interpretations of the withdrawal – more a rout – and none can say that America’s reputation has been enhanced globally.

European allies are particularly disappointed with President Joe Biden’s obstinacy, while Asian countries have been less vocal in their disapproval. India has been totally silent, because US forces control Kabul airport and New Delhi can’t evacuate a single person without total American cooperation. Even though the US has been considerate about requests, it refused an Indian diplomatic mission at the airport, saying that the facility was only available to its NATO allies. India’s status as a Major Defense Partner and a member of the Quad don’t count.

Beyond the evacuation, New Delhi is caught in a situation on its extended continental borders, where it needs US support. The border crisis in Ladakh may be off the front pages but Chinese troops remain in control of strategically important areas on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. The pace of Chinese infrastructure creation and statements by Chinese leaders have put the Indian military under pressure in the eastern sector as well.

Meanwhile, the UAE-brokered backchannel talks with Pakistan have stalled, if not failed, and reports from the Line of Control suggest that the February ceasefire is fragile. Pakistan is cock-a-hoop after its ‘success’ in Afghanistan. Attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, with fingers pointed at India, have earned sharp comments from Beijing. Essentially, the US has left Afghanistan and the region in a rather inglorious fashion and Russia and China are on the same page as Pakistan.

All this leaves India precariously placed. PM Narendra Modi’s desire to showcase himself as the big global leader by chairing a UN Security Council meeting earlier this month now appears absurd. That New Delhi is missing from all global discussions, in the month it chairs the UN Security Council, tells us as much about India’s relevance as it does about the UN’s. India’s sharp economic decline in the last five years, precipitated by its mishandling of the pandemic, has added to its woes.

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan came at this difficult stage. Those who bat for closer ties with the US will argue that it frees American resources and energy for the Indo-Pacific, where all of India’s future strategic challenges lie. But this ignores the fact that India’s rise as a geopolitical power in the last 20 years was facilitated by a strong US military presence in the region, a luxury no longer available to New Delhi. With its limited resources, New Delhi’s rebalancing towards the land borders will make it a less attractive partner for Washington in the Indo-Pacific, simultaneously leaving India more dependent on the US. While Indian analysts seem to be happy to talk about Pakistan’s eventual failure in dealing with the Taliban, they are guilty of ignoring bigger challenges awaiting India in the east and the west.

Since the end of the Cold War, Indian and American interests have been aligned to the east of India, but there has been a dissonance towards the west. This was acknowledged by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on August 15 when he said, “We clearly have much more overlaps of interest with the US east of India, which is why the Indo-Pacific allows for a platform like the Quad. But, when it comes to Afghanistan, I think we have watched a lot of these decisions with a great deal of concern. Unfortunately, all that we’ve been seeing for the last few days have realised many of those fears.”

His ‘I told you so’ tone sounds lame when we see the ill-prepared nature of Indian actions in Afghanistan. Not only is New Delhi short of options but the Modi government seems lost and bereft of ideas for dealing with the situation. It didn’t have to be this way. Will this repeat itself towards the east in a few years’ time? Kipling’s line “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…” may not apply like Hemingway’s lines do today.


Reportedly

The whole section on ‘culture and heritage’ of a government-run website has vanished. It has been taken down, after a reference on the site to the Mughal empire as “one of the greatest” was removed, following protests on Twitter by Hindutva bigots. Next step? The disappearance of the entire section. Rewriting history starts with erasure. 

The Ministry of Culture, which had earlier said that it was working with the agencies to “accurately portray events”, distanced itself, maintaining that it neither generated content nor made recommendations to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which runs KnowIndia.gov.in. The content was in fact from an NCERT textbook ― an exciting plot twist in the Case of the Vanishing Histories


Komagata Maru Memorial vandalised by ‘racists’

The Komagata Maru Memorial at Coal Harbour in Vancouver, Canada, was defaced on Sunday. The diaspora termed it a “racist attack”. White paint was splattered on the wall bearing the names of the victims, with handprints and the legend ‘893 YK’. 

The Komagata Maru steamship had reached Vancouver’s Coal Harbour on May 23, 1914, from Hong Kong via Japan. The ship was carrying 376 Indians, including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India and the Far East, who claimed right of entry as citizens of the British Empire. They were turned away under the discriminatory ‘Continuous Passage Order’, which required ships to sail nonstop from their port of origin, making it impossible for South Asians to reach white-dominated destinations. In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologised for the Komagata Maru incident


Prime number: 4.4 hours per day
That's the time spent on average by Indian adults on screens per day, outside of work or educational time, as per the 2021 Norton Cyber Safety Insights report. While 66% have become addicted to being online during the pandemic, 82% said that screen time has increased significantly. Smartphones are the commonest devices, which 84% Indian adults surveyed feel they are spending too much time on.

UAE tightens entry norms for Indians, Saudis loosen up 

Without offering a reason, UAE authorities have temporarily suspended visas on arrival for Indian passengers travelling from India, or those who had been in India in the past 14 days. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has permitted Indian nationals who have travelled to India after receiving both doses of the vaccine in Saudi Arabia, to return to the kingdom directly without quarantine in a third country. 


Deep Dive

Killing the story: How the Kashmir press was silenced after the region lost autonomy. From The Reuters Institute at Oxford University.


Farmers’ national convention at Singhu tomorrow

Over 1,500 representatives of farm unions will gather to discuss future strategies for the ongoing farmers’ protest during the two-day national convention beginning tomorrow at Delhi’s Singhu border, to mark the completion of nine months of the agitation against the three problematic farm laws. The farmers’ Mahapanchayat on September 5 in Muzaffarnagar will be a discussion point. Apart from Singhu, gatherings will be organised all over India.


UP withdraws Muzaffarnagar riot cases

The UP government has withdrawn 77 cases relating to the Muzaffarnagar riots without offering reasons. This was revealed in a report filed by amicus curiae Vijay Hansaria in a matter relating to expediting cases against MPs and MLAs in the Supreme Court. Other states have also been busy withdrawing cases against legislators. The court expressed grave concern about tardy investigation by the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI in cases against legislators.

A bench led by Chief Justice NV Ramana has said that its order to expedite trial in criminal cases against MPs/MLAs should not be misconstrued as a mandate to give out-of-turn hearings of appeals. Hansaria said 77 cases linked to the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, for which the accused would have got life terms, were withdrawn by UP.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Would the proposed makeover of Sabarmati Ashram not obliterate Gandhi’s ideas and message? Would Gandhi’s spirit survive? The loss would be intangible, but huge, write Thomas Weber, Charles DiSalvo and Dennis Dalton. 


Listen Up

The ‘Kabuliwalas’ or the Afghans in the popular imagination. Hear Sandip Roy in this podcast.


Watch Out

Fifty years ago, on the first Sunday of August in 1971, a crowd of New Yorkers attended a concert by ‘George Harrison and Friends’. The Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden drew international attention to the genocide in East Pakistan. Watch snatches of it here:


Over and Out

After the cleverly named Kuch Nai Scotch, Mirza Ghalib wine debuts. Red and Chardonnay. 

The uproar about The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s ignorance about Indian cuisine eventually forced the paper to issue a correction. Weingarten apologised on social media and now, Salman Rushdie has spoken: “Just heard about Gene Weingarten for the first time in my life. What he doesn’t know about Indian food would fill an encyclopedia. I plan never to hear about him again.” Just desserts. Shahi tukda, anyone?


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