Govt Critic Dainik Bhaskar Raided; Pegasus Role in Princess Latifa’s Recapture

Plus: Naga groups in Pegasus database―after ‘historic’ accord, India, Pak trade Eid sweets again after 370 chill, 8.5 times more children orphaned in April and inconveniently, Kim holds his brolly

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
July 22, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

This morning, the taxman has been busy raiding the homes of the promoters of the Dainik Bhaskar group of publications in Bhopal, and the newspapers’ offices, too. Shortly after the Bhaskar raids started, Brajesh Mishra’s Bharat Samachar in UP was raided. Significantly, in the light of the Pegasus affair, the phones of Bhaskar staffers were confiscated. The Bhaskar group has been severely critical of the Centre’s handling of the pandemic. Its subsidiary in Gujarat, Divya Bhaskar, began the practice of tallying death certificates against government statistics, which eventually exposed massive undercounting in major BJP states. It had a bearing on the viral Gujarati poem ‘Shav-vahini Ganga’ ― ‘Corpse-bearing Ganga’.

Last weekend Om Gaur, an editor at Dainik Bhaskar, wrote an oped in the New York Times, ‘The Ganges Is Returning the Dead. It Does Not Lie.’

Bloomberg reports that “India’s actual death toll from Covid-19 could range between 1.3 million and a staggering 5 million, with even the most conservative estimate putting its tally at more than double that of the US, the world record. The numbers, derived from research models and local authority data, range from three to 10 times the country’s official count, adding to evidence that the true cost of India’s outbreak has been massively under-reported.”

The government has said there were zero deaths for lack of oxygen. Never mind. DataMeet has been recording the deaths, and the total in its records is 619. A research associate connected with the project said: “Just like there’s no data on migrant workers’ deaths and job losses, they don’t have data on oxygen shortage deaths. But we do.” Said Gurpreet Singh Rumy, president of Khalsa Help International, credited with originating the ‘Oxygen Langar’, “Official records may show otherwise but our records prove that there was a severe oxygen crisis during the second wave of Covid-19.” Hindustan Times had published a state-wise map of oxygen-related deaths in India. 

There was an 8.5-fold increase in children orphaned in April compared to the previous month. As many as 1.19 lakh children in India lost their primary caregiver (parent or custodial grandparent) due to Covid-19, placing the country at the third spot after Mexico (1.4 lakh) and Brazil (1.3 lakh), according to a study published in The Lancet

“Amnesty International categorically stands by the findings of the Pegasus Project, and that the data is irrefutably linked to potential targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The false rumours being pushed on social media are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.” In a sharp statement this afternoon, Amnesty International, whose digital lab is at the heart of the Pegasus Project, has said that “websites misquoting, mistranslating and misinterpreting a Hebrew statement issued by Amnesty International Israel” had been eagerly embraced by the Modi government to diffuse the charge that it had snooped on its own citizens. Amnesty International will publish an accurate translation shortly. 

“Very unlikely, but you can try,” said a Supreme Court Bench this morning to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who hopes to convey to it the heartburn caused to the Delhi Police by the bail given to Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the Delhi ‘riots’ matter by the High Court, and its observations on the UAPA. The Delhi Police had approached the court of final appeal to have the bail order quashed. 

The Economist comments sharply on India’s wounded economy: “Where India does stand out among large economies is in how hard its economy has been hammered. As richer countries begin to bounce back, it finds itself stuck with persistent unemployment and inflation, limp demand and falling savings and investment. Many of those troubles were pre-existing conditions.”

Pegasus may have played a role in thwarting the escape of Princess Latifa, daughter of the ruler of UAE, who was anxious to start an independent life (other women of the family, including the ruler’s estranged wife, have successfully fled the UAE). The phones of people close to her may have been placed in the surveillance net at the time of her escape. Reportedly, Indian special forces were involved in an operation to kidnap Latifa from a yacht on the high seas as it sailed for Goa, from where she was to fly to the US to seek asylum. Indian commandos are said to have played a crucial and controversial role in rendering her to the Emirati authorities. India has never acknowledged its role in the sordid operation. However, it coincided with the UAE deporting Chritian Michel, who was wanted in India in the Agusta-Westland case.

French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered multiple investigations after his phone number, as well as those of his former prime minister and the majority of his 20-strong cabinet, appeared in the leaked database at the heart of the Pegasus Project. But the Indian government remains unconcerned.

Expressing shock over media reports on widespread surveillance of journalists and politicians using Pegasus spyware, the Editors Guild of India has demanded an independent Supreme Court-monitored inquiry into the alleged snooping. “The Editors Guild of India is shocked by the media reports on the widespread surveillance, allegedly mounted by government agencies, on journalists, civil society activists, businessmen and politicians, using a hacking software known as Pegasus, created and developed by the Israeli company NSO,” the Guild said in a statement shared on Twitter

CBSE has extended the deadline for thousands of its affiliated schools to complete board results process and moderation of marks from Thursday to Saturday. CBSE said schools had requested the board as a stiff deadline was leading to errors in the tabulation and moderation process.

A fact-check finds that the claim made by Modi and Adityanath that UP had just 12 medical colleges till 2017 is incorrect. Don’t expect a retraction or a denial. That’s not in the shakha syllabus.

Farmers protesting against three central farm laws since last November have begun a Kisan Sansad at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The agitation will be held in groups of 200 every day while Parliament is in session. The protesters plan to follow Parliamentary norms and procedures with a speaker, a deputy speaker, a tea break, etc. “We will show how to hold Parliament,” their leaders said. Earlier, the Delhi Police had refused them permission to protest in the vicinity of Parliament. 

Sopan Narsinga Gaekwad, 108, died just before the Supreme Court admitted a case he had pursued since 1968. And while elsewhere, the government protests that door-to-door vaccination is impossible ― though it would have accelerated the vaccine drive ― in Ganderbal and Bandipora, trekking for kilometres is the only way to go

The Economic Times reports that as the second wave recedes and vaccinations pick up, tourist destinations overseas are opening up to traffic from India. Booking portal MakeMyTrip.com has seen a 35% jump in searches for international leisure packages in July, over June. Thomas Cook (India) reports a 50% week-on-week surge in searches for European destinations. The tourism sector, among the hardest hit by the pandemic, is happy to see that the rate of recovery is much faster in 2021 than it was after the first wave.  


Nagas hacked by Pegasus

Among the top leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-Isak Muivah) whose phone numbers have been found in the leaked Pegasus database are Atem Vashum, Apam Muivah, Anthony Shimray and Phunthing Shimrang. This was less than two years after the signing ceremony of a “historic” peace agreement with NSCN (I-M) by the government in the presence of PM Narendra Modi. In the aftermath of the August 2015 framework agreement, the NSCN (I-M) has been in talks with the Modi government to flesh out the details of a final settlement. The rebel group fought an insurgency against India for decades before announcing a ceasefire in 1997.

The leaked records also show that N Kitovi Zhimomi, convenor of the Naga National Political Groups, with which the Modi government is also in parleys to find ‘one solution’ to the Naga issue since the end of 2017, was selected as a possible candidate for surveillance towards the end of 2017.


Release my husband too, says Manipur journalist’s wife

Wife of Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, arrested in May under provisions of the National Security Act for a Facebook post, wrote to Manipur chief secretary Rajesh Kumar yesterday requesting his release after political activist Erendro Liechombam, who was also arrested on the same charge, was let go on Monday following a Supreme Court order. The SC is now hearing a petition filed by his father seeking compensation for illegal detention. “My husband has been detained in the Central Jail Sajiwa under NSA since May 17 along with Erendro Leichombam, whose NSA [charge] has been revoked by your office on July 19,” Ranjita wrote in her letter, reported by Hindustan Times.

Wangkhem and Leichombam were arrested in May this year after Facebook posts denigrating claims that consumption of cow urine and dung could cure Covid-19, while alluding to the death of Manipur BJP president S Tikendra Singh due to the disease.


UDAN is grounded

As on May 31, only 47% of total routes and 39% of airports (un-served and under-served) have been operationalised under the Modi government’s Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme, according to an ICRA report. It said that there is likely to be a further delay of two years in achieving the target of operationalising as many as 100 un-served and under-served airports, and starting at least 1,000 Regional Connectivity Scheme routes by 2024. Aimed at enhancing regional access through fiscal support and infrastructure development, the maiden flight under the UDAN scheme was flagged off by PM Modi from Shimla to Delhi in April 2017.


India, Pakistan exchange sweets at border, first time since 2019 

The Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistan Rangers yesterday exchanged sweets at various points along the border on the occasion of Eid-ul-Adha, the first time since the practise stopped after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in August 2019. A BSF spokesperson said that “exchange of sweets took place between BSF and Pakistan Rangers on the occasion of Eid at JCP (joint check post) Attari” in Punjab’s Amritsar district, which lies across the Wagah border front of Pakistan. A similar exchange of sweets took place between the two forces along the Rajasthan front too, officials said, and also along the border in Jammu.

The two sides also exchange sweets during festivals and special days like Diwali and Eid, Republic Day, Independence Day, BSF Raising Day on December 1 and Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14.


Reportedly

There’s been an umbrella fight online. As blind supporters of PM Modi showered praise on him for “holding his own umbrella” outside Parliament House, it spurred plenty of commentary by those unimpressed by the flattery. Kunal Kamra’s meme of the umbrella had Jio written all over it. When Khushbu Sundar, a recent convert to the Tamil Nadu BJP, put out pictures of Congress leaders standing under umbrellas held by aides and others, a raft of pictures emerged of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un carrying his own. That sort of rained on the parade, and the treacly praise has stopped. 


Fuel prices at pump may fall, even as taxes remain high

The Modi government may not cut the exorbitant excise duty on petrol and diesel but retail fuel prices may still come down after a fall in global crude prices as Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies’ move to raise production. Crude oil, which was trading at around $76 per barrel at the beginning of the month, came down close to $67 per barrel on Monday. 


Prime number: $37.5 million 

That is the volume of the settlement agreed to by two Indian-American doctors. They, and one of the largest hospital systems in the US, have agreed to pay nearly $37.5 million to settle charges of kickbacks for patient referrals, the US Department of Justice said. It resolves allegations that Prime Healthcare Services system overpaid California interventional cardiologist Dr Siva Arunasalam’s physician practice and surgery centre because the company wanted him to refer patients to its Desert Valley Hospital in Victorville, California, it said. 

The purchase price, which was substantially negotiated by Prime Healthcare Services founder and CEO Dr Prem Reddy, exceeded the fair market value and was not commercially reasonable, it said. Prime also knowingly overcompensated the doctor when the High Desert Heart Vascular Institute entered into an employment agreement with him that was based on the volume and value of his patient referrals to the Desert Valley Hospital. Prime and Dr Reddy had paid $65 million to settle previous unrelated allegations of false claims and overbilling in 2018, the Department of Justice said.


Deep Dive

Climate hazards are threatening vulnerable migrants in Indian megacities, concludes a study by Vittal Hari et al, in Nature.Heatwaves and floods, whose incidence is projected to increase in South Asia, are the main threats in the cities to which migrants move. 


Parents and grandparents of Indo-Canadians to benefit

Indians will benefit from a new scheme which allows a record number of 40,000 immigrant families in Canada to sponsor their parents and grandparents to bring them to Canada in 2021. This means 30,000 additional applications will be accepted as against the routine annual intake of 10,000 under the Parents and Grandparents Programme, which is aimed at family reunification. Since Indo-Canadians are one of the fastest growing communities in Canada, they will be the major beneficiaries of the programme.


More Rafales arrive from France

A seventh batch of three more Rafale fighter jets arrived in India yesterday, flying nonstop from France to take the total to 24. The aircraft were provided midair refuelling by the air force of the UAE. These aircraft will be part of the second squadron of the Rafale jets of the Indian Air Force, which is based at Hasimara in West Bengal. The first Rafale squadron is based at Ambala in Haryana.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • If a military-grade conventional weapon comparable to Pegasus ― like a bomb, a missile, or an explosive ― were used by the government against its own citizens, how would institutions respond? Will no one be held accountable when leaders deploy intrusive spyware against their opponents and own citizens? The onus is now on key Indian institutions, writes Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) in Foreign Policy.

  • Aakar Patel writes that if the Modi government is serious about making it easier to operate in India, there is one easy way for it to do so. It should stop what it is deliberately doing to the NGO sector and let it operate as freely as the rest of the private sector.

  • The Union government’s letter on implementation of the Forest Rights Act is an attempt to dilute the law, writes Neethu Joseph. The Forest Rights Act is under the sole purview of the Tribal Affairs Ministry, but the joint communication brings in the Environment and Forests Ministry, thereby giving power to the Forest Department.

  • A few thousand phones may have been targeted in India, a few hundred eventually hacked, but it will not stay that way. It will eventually be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of phones, and an entire army of unsupervised and unaccountable snoopers armed with the latest global technology. That’s our future, unless we take a stand against this abuse now, writes Mihir Sharma.

  • With its new privacy policy that comes into force from August 19 where users don’t have an opt-out option, Twitter is trying to generate new revenue, writes Devangshu Dutta. The new policy clarifies what sort of data and metadata it will collect.


Listen up

The Guardian’s Michael Safi is helming a fascinating series of audio reports documenting the Pegasus Projects and its many dimensions and scope. Must listen to each episode, and start with the first.


Watch Out

The Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University has launched a publicly available data dashboard on key employment indicators: ‘India Working in Numbers’. “The dashboard presents statistics on jobs, earnings, productivity, gender and caste gaps, state-level indicators and more, using information from a range of public datasets.”

At 23:14 is a panel discussion which includes Arvind Subramanian and Jean Dreze.


Over and Out

A letter Indira Gandhi wrote to JRD Tata. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. 


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.