Draconian Law Bans Strikes; Now, Two NDA Allies Seek Pegasus Probe

Opposition gets cooking with breakfast of champions, Dalit minor raped, killed in Delhi crematorium, UAE lifts India travel curbs, poverty soared even before pandemic, new IT portal flops out

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 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Poverty is up. About 25.9% of India can be classified as poor in 2019-20, up from 21.9% in 2011-12. The rise in the absolute numbers of poor Indians is horrific ― 348 million, up from 269.8 million in 2011-12. From 2004-5 to 2014-15, the number of poor had fallen for the first time. But even the rise in absolute numbers of the poor is unprecedented as absolute numbers have been in decline ever since poverty started being counted in the 1970s. The government has not admitted this, but the Periodic Labour Force Survey establishes it. These numbers are pre-pandemic. 

Some 348 people died while 1,189 were tortured in police custody in different parts of the country in the last three years, the Modi government told Parliament yesterday. 

In an embarrassment for the BJP, after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, another NDA ally from Bihar, Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi has demanded a probe into Pegasus. Manjhi backed the Opposition’s demand for a probe, saying the Pegasus issue is “affecting the functioning of Parliament”. The Hindureports that “in the cabinet reshuffle this year by Modi, Kumar wanted at least two of his close aides — RCP Singh and Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh — included in the cabinet, say party sources. But only RCP Singh was offered a berth and he readily accepted the offer which apparently did not go down well with Kumar.”

A parliamentary panel has questioned ‘haircuts’ ― a reduction of as much as 95% in the value of some assets. The panel cautioned the government against “disproportionately large” haircuts taken by lenders under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) and warned that frequent changes to the newly enacted law could significantly twist its original objective. The Rajya Sabha yesterday passed the IBC (Amendment) Bill, 2021, amidst a din. Here are some Bills that have been passed within minutes with almost no discussion.

The share of the states in central government taxes fell to its lowest in five years in FY20-21. It was Rs 7.61 trillion in 2018-19 and has fallen to Rs 5.95 trillion, while the Centre’s share has risen from Rs 13.17 trillion to Rs 14.24 trillion.

Covid-19 cannot be wished away. Eight states are showing a rise in their R-number, says the Union government. After nearly three months of steady decline, daily Covid-19 infections in India have again started inching upwards. The Wall Street Journal reports: “A little over two months ago about 4,000 people were dying every day from Covid-19 in India. Yet, on a recent Friday, a rooftop bar in New Delhi was once again packed with crowds of young adults mingling without masks. Among the hundreds at the Summer House Cafe, a popular nightspot in India’s capital city, was Srishtii Guptaa, a 29-year-old graduate student who said she lost several family members to Covid-19 in April and May. “Life goes on,” said Ms Guptaa, who resumed her busy social life as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted. “Nothing stops me from partying.”

The Allahabad High Court has directed the UP government to justify the suspension of Dr Kafeel Khan from a hospital in Gorakhpur for more than four years. Dr Khan was a paediatrician at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College and Hospital, where 63 children died for lack of oxygen in 2017. He was suspended and jailed for nine months on charges of medical negligence, corruption and dereliction of duty, though he had earlier warned the authorities about the shortage of oxygen. Dr Khan has challenged his suspension, and an order of the Disciplinary Authority for a re-enquiry.

The Hindureports that the number of “excess deaths” registered by the Civil Registration System in Maharashtra ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit (from April 2020 to May 2021), was an estimated 2,12,589, which is 2.8 times the official reported figure of 75,877 deaths for the same period.

At least 120 girl students failed their Class XII Uttar Pradesh board exams, allegedly after being marked absent by their school in Moradabad city for failing to deposit fees. The parents said they could not afford the fees due to the pandemic. In Bhopal, Varisha Pathak, 16, of Carmel Convent, BHEL, topped the Class 10 exams with 99.8% after losing both parents to Covid-19. 

In a blow for Tesla, the Modi government has said that it has no plans to cut import duties on electric vehicles. Days ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had hoped that India would slash taxes. Tesla last month wrote to the transport and industry ministries requesting cuts to 40% from the current 60%-100%, Bloomberg had reported.

Indian boxer Lovlina Borgohain has to settle for an Olympic bronze. She lost to Busenaz Sürmeneli of Turkey 0-5 in the women’s welterweight (64-69 kg) semifinal. As the Indian women’s hockey team plays the semi-finals today, here is its thematic connection to India’s vaccination programme.​​


Dalit girl raped in Delhi

A Dalit minor was possibly gang-raped and killed in the capital by four accused, including a crematorium priest, in a horrific crime recalling Hathras, UP, and 2012, when another savage gang-rape had the city rising in protest. Opposition leaders asked uncomfortable questions to the government that says beti bachao, beti padhao, while the worst crime statistics prevail in states run by the BJP. Madhya Pradesh has the dubious distinction of topping the list for over 15 years. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi met the victim’s mother this morning. The minor was killed in the same crematorium where two women were reportedly raped this June. In that case, police told Newslaundry, they have arrested two Indian Army men and the investigation is ongoing. A magisterial probe has been ordered by the Delhi government.


Transfer of Bhima-Koregaon detenus to prisons challenged

The kin of three accused in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad Case have approached the Bombay High Court challenging orders to transfer 10 accused out of Taloja Central Prison to any other prison in Maharashtra. The petition states that Special NIA Judge DE Kothalikar's orders, repeatedly permitting transfers without issuing notice, holding a hearing or recording reasons, violates principles of natural justice. Moreover, the petition accuses Taloja’s previous superintendent, Kaustubh Kurlekar, of initiating transfers as “victimisation” for demanding prisoners’ “rights” prescribed under The Prisons Act, 1894. 

The petition adds that the transfers to different prisons could make it hard for the accused to prepare their defence against a charge sheet over 20,000 pages long. Of the 16 academics, lawyers and activists arrested in the case, 10 are lodged in Taloja Prison and three are in Byculla Women’s Prison. Dr Varavara Rao, who is out on interim bail, Delhi University Associate Professor Hanny Babu, who is in the Breach Candy Hospital, and Father Stan Swamy, who died in custody on July 5, were all lodged in Taloja. Professor Anand Teltumbde and Advocate Surendra Gadling’s spouses – Rama and Minal – and activist Sudhir Dhawale’s friend Sharad Gaikwad have filed the plea under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India and Section 21 of the NIA Act.


Indian military base in Mauritius

An Al Jazeera investigation reports that India is secretly transforming the Mauritian island of Agaléga into a military hub for its navy. The investigation reveals a construction project funded by the Indian government with potentially devastating consequences for the island's 300 inhabitants. It only confirms and revives earlier media reports, although with the latest satellite imagery and video interviews from the island. In 2018, The Hindu had reported on protests in the Mauritian parliament over fears of an Indian military base at Agaléga. However, MEA officials had denied any such ambitions, and said that this was part of an infrastructure MoU signed in 2015. 

“India is developing military infrastructure on the Agaléga island of Mauritius and seeks to develop naval infrastructure on the Assumption island of Seychelles. With the naval infrastructure in the Maldives and growing defence ties with Mauritius, the Indian Navy’s operational capabilities would be enhanced. Mauritius and the Maldives are part of India’s security perimeter and greater outreach to these Indian Ocean states is vital from the perspective of India’s security interests,” MoneyControl had reported in March.


History sheeter appointed UP BJP official

PM Narendra Modi and the BJP may claim to be against criminals in politics, but a secretary of its youth wing in UP has a rap sheet that beies this. Kanpur resident Arvind Raj Tripathi, who has been made the UP BJP youth wing state secretary, faces 16 cases including charges of murder, attempt to murder and extortion. Prosecuted under the Goonda Act, he is a ‘history sheeter’ of Kakadeo Police Station, Kanpur. Besides, BJP state Youth Wing vice-president Shibeer Singh was accused of helping another history sheeter escape from police custody.


The Long Cable

Nutritious alphabet soup at breakfast of champions

Sidharth Bhatia

The quest for a joint Opposition group to take on the BJP goes on. The latest initiative was the breakfast meeting called by Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday, which 15 parties attended, including the TMC, the DMK and the NCP. Others from the alphabet soup of Indian politics, such as the BJD, stayed away. Earlier, TMC leader Mamata Banerjee had called for a joint front of Opposition parties and Sharad Pawar and Yashwant Sinha had called for a meeting in Delhi, which, they were at pains to explain, was “not an anti-BJP front”.

Though such permutations and combinations are not unusual, what makes it interesting is that the Congress participated.

The hope of a non-Congress, non-BJP combine is an old one, even though all coalitions that did not have one or the other big party at the core, collapsed. Whether Narasimha Rao’s regime in 1991, or the Vajpayee-led NDA in 1998 and 1999 or indeed, more recently, the two UPA governments headed by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2004 and 2009, the bigger national formations are key to any successful coalition. 

The Congress has consistently been supported by around 20 percent of the country’s voters in general elections and still retains a national presence, even if it is down to a mere 52 seats. It runs three state governments and is part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi in Maharashtra. Ignoring it would mean not just cutting out a key partner, but also needless triangular contests in the elections.

The BJP is now the mammoth in town, seemingly invincible and looking set — on the face of it — to stay put for the foreseeable future. Narendra Modi, the party’s vote-getter, has performed impressively in two general elections, but his alleged magic has failed in most state elections. Apart from UP and Modi’s home state Gujarat, it has not actually won any big state election, and has formed governments by toppling incumbents, or by subterfuge, as in Goa. It lost Maharashtra when the other parties in the state pulled off an equally clever stratagem.

But while it has been wanting in state elections, the BJP looks all powerful, with not only no political opposition, but also no politician who can fight Modi face to face. The BJP has successfully dented Rahul Gandhi’s image, such as it may be, and he hasn’t helped his cause by being inconsistent in his commitment to the political grind, though he is in one of his more fertile phases, trying to pick up relevant points to attack the government’s many failures.

More of a handicap than Gandhi’s own off-on performance is the overweening ambition of several regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee or Sharad Pawar, and perhaps many more, who are keeping their plans to themselves. Will they allow anyone else to take centre stage? Such aspirations could cancel out any joint formation at birth or soon after. 

Some of them may also be keeping their options open of joining or collaborating with the BJP, calculating that it is in their best interests to be on the right side of the Union government. The TMC and the Shiv Sena have partnered with the BJP at the Centre and in state governments (though the former is now on the anti-BJP warpath) and Naveen Patnaik, whose party did not attend Rahul Gandhi’s breakfast, has always been favourably inclined towards the BJP and inimical to the Congress. One can see why any Opposition formation, especially at this stage, with three years to go for the next general elections, is extremely premature.

Nonetheless, it shows the early contours of what could emerge eventually, and indicates that the Opposition parties are thinking of some initiative to challenge the BJP and the Modi-Shah combine. On his part, Modi is ageing and his government has failed on many crucial fronts, from the economy to foreign policy to the handling of the Covid pandemic, which has affected millions of people. He may find it difficult to convince the floating and neutral vote, which is critical, that he has it in him to take India to a safe, secure and economically strong path. 


Reportedly

The Indian government has refused permission for a group of five India-based foreign journalists to travel to Pakistan via the Wagah border this week. They were scheduled to travel from Tuesday to Saturday to interview Pakistan PM Imran Khan in Islamabad. The official reason is that Wagah is not open for travel for non-diplomats or anything non-essential, but Pakistan seemed to have been sanguine, having given various sanctions. Has the India-Pakistan bonhomie created by backchannel engagement facilitated by the UAE ended? Or is it that New Delhi doesn’t want international media to cover Imran favourably when they have been scathing about Modi?


Paralysed tax portal, new deadlines

The dysfunctional state of the new income tax portal weeks after it was commissioned and the Modi government’s inability to fix it has forced the Central Board of Direct Taxes to extend dates for electronic filings under the IT Act.


Prime number: Rs 34,402 crore
The Union government “saved” Rs 34,402 crore by freezing the dearness allowance (DA) and dearness relief (DR) of 11.4 million central government employees and pensioners for a period of 18 months till 30 June this year. ‘Saved’ means that the public servants were denied this allowance in the middle of a global pandemic ― while corporate taxes were slashed and the construction of the Central Vista continued unabated. 

Draconian anti-strike law

The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021, has been hurriedly passed without a debate. It institutionalises dismissal without inquiry and arrest without warrant. Designed to preempt agitation against corporatisation of the defence services, the use of ‘essential’ in the title potentially widens its ambit to other industries. 


Deep Dive

The Environment Ministry’s new standard operating procedures to regularise or close down industrial projects operating without mandatory environmental clearance are illegal in both letter and spirit, say environmental lawyers.


UAE opens up to India traffic

The United Arab Emirates will, from tomorrow, allow entry of fully vaccinated Indian nationals with residency permits. It will also allow entry of vaccinated and unvaccinated Indians working in the medical, educational and government sectors. A ban on transit flights, including from India and Pakistan, will be lifted. Passengers travelling from countries where flights had been banned would be able to transit through UAE airports from August 5, with a negative PCR test taken 72 hours prior to departure. Final destination approval would also have to be provided, and the UAE departure airports would arrange separate lounges.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India’s continuing support for Kabul, lobbying with the US, Iran, and Russia to resist offering diplomatic recognition to the Taliban if it comes to power by force, and heightened featuring in Taliban’s propaganda pieces is a sign that both sides are far from a meaningful conversation, writes Avinash Paliwal.

  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed a warning to the Modi government on India’s democratic backsliding but did the prime minister hear it, asks Prem Shankar Jha.

  • “If the Modi government’s denial of Chinese occupation of Indian territory laid the foundation for India’s weak hand at the talks with China, the surrender of the Kailash heights haunts its efforts to reach a settlement with the PLA. India cannot afford such costly blunders,” writes Deccan Herald in an editorial.

  • To constantly be expected to deliver on the biggest of stages is not easy. But PV Sindhu finds a way and it is important on many counts, writes Vinayakk Mohanarangan.

  • Jawed Naqvi misses Dilip Kumar on August 5, the day his most popular movie Mughal-e-Azam was released in 1960 depicting a halcyonic blend of Hindu and Muslim cultures during Emperor Akbar’s rule. The film’s story was largely mythological — like that of Camelot — but Mughal-e-Azam was crucially told through a Nehruvian lens that romanced the coming together of popular lore with the secular sensibilities of a newly independent multicultural democracy.


Listen Up

Does our law allow the government to spy on citizens? If our government wanted to use Pegasus, how would they do it? Listen in to Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation on how it affects Indian citizens.


Watch Out

In a session titled ‘Contemporary Lives of Indian Ocean Worlds, India in a Global Perspective’, five scholars from around the world weigh in on Indian ocean studies and how the significance of places changes over time.


Over and Out

While other libraries closed down, a community library in rural UP was begun during the pandemic. Law student Jatin Lalit Singh took what he learnt from Delhi’s Community Library Project to the village of Bansa.

Imitation is surely the best form of flattery, but this is too much of a compliment to south Indian films. Master, Vikram Vedha, Thadam, Kaithi, Ratsasan, are just a few amongst the host of upcoming Hindi films which are going to be remakes of hit films from the south.

Angami musicians from Nagaland perform ‘You Raise Me Up’ with Italian-Canadian classical crossover singer Natalie DiLuccio. The video has shots of Khonoma, India’s first green village in Nagaland.


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.