India Ducks as France, US Take Pegasus By the Horns; 'High Command' Rule the New Norm in BJP

Plus: India’s Olympic dreams soar, data pointing to excess mortality goes missing, no cross-LoC trade, Uri is in peril, fifth India-Bangladesh rail line starts, villages falling through BharatNet 

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 2, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The controversial police officer in Jammu and Kashmi, Davinder Singh, arrested while transporting a terrorist to Delhi, has been dismissed from service but what is raising eyebrows is a line in the government order, that the inquiry has been stopped “in the interest of the security of the state”. In fact, this is the same line used in dismissal notices against others in J&K too to allow for summary dismissal of public servants and does not mean Singh is not being investigated for the crime he is charged with. But given the government’s earlier reluctance to question him when his name came up during the 2001 parliament attack case investigation, ordinary Kashmiris are convinced the full truth about what Singh’s been up to might never come out.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the body of Danish Siddiqui, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photojournalist from India who was killed in Afghanistan last month, was badly mutilated while in the custody of the Taliban. Siddiqui took some of the most memorable news photographs from South Asia in recent years, and was killed on the morning of July 16, when Afghan commandos he had accompanied to Spin Boldak, a border district recently captured by the Taliban, were ambushed. He was widely mourned in India and abroad, including by top global leaders mourning his death and criticising the Taliban. Indian PM Narendra Modi’s continuing silence on it has been very loud.

The BJP’s Vadodara unit has requested the city’s slaughterhouse to remain closed today to mark the birthday of chief minister Vijay Rupani. The party workers will go around and ask private meat vendors to close down too, the BJP’s city president said. In a release yesterday, the BJP has said that “in the history of the city, in a first-of-its-kind tribute to a sitting Chief Minister, the slaughterhouse in the city will remain closed on August 2 to pay respect to Rupani”, since he is a believer of Jainism that preaches non-violence. Jainism also believes that people should not be compelled to do something against their will, but then the BJP perhaps does not know that.

In a dazzling display of the forked tongue at another end of the country, just a day ago, Sanbor Shullai, BJP’s minister in the Meghalaya government encouraged the people of the state “to eat more beef than chicken, mutton and fish”, he said everybody was free to eat whatever they want in a democratic country.

US customs officials have seized over 23,000 pills of India-made sildenafil citrate, an active ingredient in the prescription drug Viagra, worth $712,756 in retail sales. The pills weighing about 20 kg were in blister packs, indicating that they had been manufactured in India, and all were headed to an apartment in Decatur, Georgia. The shipment, seized in Cincinnati, originated from an apartment residence in India. 

Meanwhile, the police in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh said that an agreement should be made in advance by universities holding seminars “regarding the subject matter to be discussed and the ideas to be displayed”. The RSS's student wing objected to professors Gauhar Raza and Apoorvanand participating in the webinar as speakers at a Central university in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district which quickly pulled out of the webinar.

The reproduction rate, or R value, of Covid-19 in India is up from 0.96 to 1 and it is a matter of concern, the director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences Randeep Guleria told NDTV on the weekend. The Central Information Commission has slammed the Modi government’s blanket denial of information related to a committee overseeing medical oxygen supplies during the pandemic, saying its rationale was “far fetched” and “unjustified”. 


Pegasus case listed for August 5 at Supreme Court

On Thursday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear multiple pleas, including the one filed by senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar, who have sought an independent probe by a sitting or a retired judge into the alleged Pegasus snooping matter. According to the cause list uploaded on the apex court website, a bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Surya Kant will hear three separate petitions seeking a probe into the reports of alleged snooping by government agencies on eminent citizens, politicians and scribes by using Israeli spyware Pegasus.

On July 30, the top court had said it would hear the plea filed by Ram and Kumar in the matter next week after senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the senior journalists, had told the court that the plea needed an urgent hearing in view of its wide ramifications.


Official data pointing to excess mortality goes missing

Crucial official health data that pointed to excess mortality and disrupted health services during the Covid-19 pandemic had gone offline, an IndiaSpend investigation by Rukmini S shows but was restored over the weekend after a public outcry. The data has been used by public health experts to show that there had been a large and unexplained spike in mortality in rural India during the pandemic, which rural health experts interpreted as an indication of severe undercounting of Covid-19 deaths.

Where there will be bodies, the truth cannot remain buried for too long. When the banks of the Ganga were the last refuge of desperate people somehow trying to deal with dead relatives in the devastating second wave in UP which the state government and Delhi tried to deny, the monsoons have forced disclosure. Amar Ujala reports that at Prayagraj’s Phaphamau, hastily buried shallow bodies came up and the UP government was forced to, even if quietly, perform last rites for 60 bodies collectively at 9pm on Friday.

When the second wave of the pandemic hit India, Modi went “largely missing from the public eye, leaving it to colleagues to place the blame elsewhere, most notably – and inaccurately – on the government’s political opposition. As a result, Indians have been left to face the biggest national crisis of their lifetime on their own,” writes Sonia Faleiro in a bracing piece in the South China Morning Post on “how India’s catastrophic failure in tackling its second wave doomed the country and cost an unimaginable – yet avoidable – toll on lives”.


India China talk on Ladakh, again

On Saturday, India and China held the 12th round of talks at the level of the Corps Commander on the border crisis in Ladakh. The Tribune reported that while India was demanding “disengagement” from the friction points of Gogra and Hot Spring on the Line of Actual Control before undertaking “de-escalation” and “deinduction,” the Chinese side was only interested in the latter two objectives. Moreover, the Chinese side was not even willing to entertain any discussion on the blocking of Indian patrols in Depsang and its pitching of tents on the Indian side of the LAC in Demchok.

There has been no official statement on the outcome of the talks so far. Besides the talks at the level of the Corps Commander, the two sides have also held 10 Major-General level and 55 Brigadier level talks and around 1,450 calls over the two hotlines in Ladakh since the crisis erupted last April. Meanwhile, on the PLA day yesterday, a hotline was established between  Indian Army in Kongra La, North Sikkim and the PLA at Khamba Dzong in Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Indian press release said that this was done “to further the spirit of trust and cordial relations along the borders… and a message of friendship and harmony was exchanged through the Hotline”.


Falling through BharatNet 

A 97-page preliminary report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on the BharatNet project has flagged serious issues with the National Optical Fibre Network conceived of in 2011, often defined as a “middle mile” project with a mandate to extend the existing optical cable fibre network from the Block Headquarters to 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats. Last month, several issues were pointed out in the CAG report, including “the lack of a fair and transparent bidding process, huge delays in appointing full-time officials at the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) — the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) set up by the government to implement BharatNet. Other issues were the absence of GIS mapping of fibre laid despite agreements being signed in 2012”.


India’s Olympic dreams soar

Much celebrations in India as P V Sindhu won the bronze medal in badminton, becoming the second Indian woman to win medals in back to back Olympics. Wrestler Sushil Kumar won two medals in successive Olympics. Fans were also thrilled when the Indian hockey team defeated Great Britain 3-1 in a quarterfinal match to qualify for the semifinals of the Olympics Games after 49 years yesterday. The last time India featured in the semifinals of the Olympics was in 1972 Munich Games where they lost 0-2 to arch-rivals Pakistan. India will take on world champions Belgium in the semifinal on Tuesday. While India won the Hockey gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, read here for why they did it without playing the semi-finals! The Indian women’s hockey team has entered the semis too after a win over Australia. India has so far won two medals in the Tokyo Olympics, but gold still eludes the contingent.


The Long Cable

As world governments react to Pegasus exposé, India is an outlier

MK Venu

Developments around the Pegasus scandal these past few days must make it impossible for the Israeli company, NSO Group, to obfuscate the centralised nature of the storehouse of client data that leaked last month. The fact that France’s cyber security authorities have independently authenticated the presence of Pegasus in the phones of two French journalists present in the NSO database demolishes the Israeli company’s claim that the list of leaked numbers was intended to be used by its clients for “other purposes” and not for deploying the deadly spyware against unsuspecting citizens and foreign nationals. President Macron of France has announced an investigation into Pegasus after his own number and that of several French ministers appeared in the infected list.

The Modi government was trying to discredit the testing method of the Amnesty Tech Lab, even though its methodology was validated by Citizen Lab of Toronto University. Now, with the French government independently authenticating the Pegasus Project’s findings, there will be ever more pressure on the Indian authorities to announce an investigation. This should also persuade the Supreme Court, where the matter will come up this week, to consider an independent probe.

NSO Group, in its initial communication, tried to confuse matters by saying the leaked database was linked to its customers merely seeking “HLR lookup services” . This relates to identification and authentication of active phone connections in a database before delivering any service. NSO was trying to suggest that such identification and authentication of persons on the database was for other legitimate purposes and not for delivering spyware. 

In reality, the usue of “HLR lookup services” or Home Location Register services, is just the first step of authenticating a customer before delivering any service, commercial or spyware. It is a generic service, in a manner of speaking. Even before delivering spyware, such authentication is required, according to experts. So NSO’s claim that the database Forbidden Stories accessed comprises random persons from different countries merely for some commercial HLR lookout services doesn’t hold water. No one, including the Israeli government, is convinced about this alibi offered by NSO. Otherwise why would the Israeli authorities raid NSO’s premises? Or why would NSO be forced to suspend its spyware services to many countries – as some media reports have it claiming – when it insists the NSO database was merely offering commercial HLR lookup services.  

If the database consisted of merely some benign HLR services offered by NSO, why would the US government seriously raise the issue of NSO’s Pegasus sale with Israeli officials? Indeed, all these developments flow from the leaked database and the database is the fountainhead of the Pegasus expose. 

As far as the government of France and the US are concerned, the nature of the leaked database is clearly established via sample testing of phones by both the Amnesty Lab and France’s Cyber security authorities, which found that Pegasus had indeed been deployed against at least 37 smartphones, including 10 in India.

The writing on the wall is very clear and the Indian authorities would also do well not to fudge anymore. The Modi government’s constant questioning of the mechanism of phone testing and the authenticity of the leaked database makes it appear to be in bed with the Israeli company. That is terrible optics and the sooner the PMO realises it, the better.

India’s judicial system is also likely see through such unedifying  contortions. Of course, before going into larger questions over the use of Pegasus, the Indian government will have to first come clean to the court on whether India has bought the spyware and spent public money on it. There is no escaping this question. This truth will bob up to the surface sooner rather than later. 


Reportedly

How much of a transition Karnataka will undergo after Basavaraj Bommai was sworn in as chief minister, remains to be seen. The  BJP has been forced to change a fourth chief minister (two in Uttarakhand, one in Assam post-elections) within weeks. One ‘transition’ which is apparent is the emergence of the BJP as a complete high command raj. When asked about the cabinet expansion, the new chief minister Basavraj Bommai has said point blank that the “high command” would send him a message and let him know by today. 


No cross-LoC trade, Uri is in peril

In 2008, the town of Uri began thriving when trade routes were opened along the Line of Control as part of measures to ease tensions between India and Pakistan. But since New Delhi halted all trading activity suddenly in April 2019, security lockdowns, telecoms blackouts and Covid-19 have plunged more than 150,000 residents back into poverty. The government had cited “illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency” as reasons for the clampdown. Now Uri is suffering.

While India and Pakistan announced a border ceasefire in February this year, distrust between the neighbours remains high, making the prospect of a trade revival in the near future slim. Islamabad on July 23 called on the United Nations to investigate whether India had used Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to spy on Pakistani public figures including Prime Minister Imran Khan. The Pakistani leader’s phone number was on a list of what an investigation by a group of 17 international media organisations and Amnesty International said were potential surveillance targets for countries that bought the spyware.


Prime number: 98
Based on the results of the fourth national serosurvey, the undercounting of Covid-19 cases is highest in the state of Uttar Pradesh by a factor of 98, followed by Madhya Pradesh at 83. Across India, the undercounting is the lowest in Kerala at a factor of 6, while the national average is 30. 

Indian-American is US Ambassador for Religious Freedom

US President Joe Biden has nominated Bihar-born Indian-American attorney Rashad Hussain as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the first Muslim to be nominated to the key position, according to the White House. Hussain, 41, is currently Director for Partnerships and Global Engagement at the National Security Council and had previously served as Senior Counsel at the Department of Justice's National Security Division. During the Obama administration, he served as US Special Envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, US Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and Deputy Associate White House Counsel. 


Deep Dive

Dhirendra K Jha examines the distance between Nazism and RSS’ in ‘Guruji’ Golwalkar’s controversial book, We or our Nationhood Defined and philosophy.


Fifth India-Bangladesh rail line starts

A goods train carrying stone chips left for Bangladesh on Saturday through the Haldibari-Chilahati rail link which had remained shut since the Indo-Pak War in 1965. The train reached Chilahati in Bangladesh on Sunday afternoon. The rail link between Haldibari in West Bengal and Chilahati in erstwhile East Pakistan used to provide a shorter route for transportation to Assam and North Bengal from rest of India. In 1947, seven rail links were operational between India and the then East Pakistan up to 1965 but at present, there are four operational rail links between India and Bangladesh, while the Haldibari – Chilahati is the fifth such rail route revived. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • After three decades of liberalisation, fruits of growth have not gone to the poor, writes Prabhat Patnaik. Working-class conditions have not improved while the rich have become richer.

  • John Keane writes that when democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable by a society weakened by poor health, low morale and joblessness, demagogues are prone to blindness and ineptitude. That is how a democracy dies.


Listen Up

Kavitha Rao on her book "Lady Doctors: the Untold Stories of India's First Women in Medicine" where she talks about how she put together the stories of Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Muthulakshmi Reddy, Mary Poonen Lukose, and Haimabati Sen, each of whom was a pioneer in her own way between 1860 and 1930.


Watch Out

Siddharth Varadarajan (a contributor to The India Cable) speaks with Kiran Chandra and Jaai Vipra on Pegasus and the attack on Indian democracy.


Over and Out

Actor Shefali Shah has made her directorial debut with a short film called Happy Birthday Mummyji. It is 15 minutes long, with (spoiler alert) Shefali as its only actor. It “talks about a woman’s right to let go and put herself first.” You can see it here. 

An irate letter to the editor in The Telegraph yesterday laments that much was made of panta bhaat being served on MasterChef Australia, but “few batted an eye-lid when phuchka made it to the judges’ table”. This is “because in spite of its humble origins on the street, phuchka is undoubtedly the star of the Indian culinary world. Michelin-starred restaurants across the world have some or the other version of phuchka on their menu,” concludes the letter-writer. 

Punjab's Mithapur village is where three Hockey Olympians hail from – skipper Manpreet, Mandeep and Varun.


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.