The India Cable: Babri Acquittals; China's Line is Not Our Line

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Portrait of the Day
September 30, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Black humorists used to say that no one killed Jessica Lal, until public outrage turned the course of that investigation. But now, it is conclusively shown that no one demolished the Babri Masjid, not even accidental on purpose. We can move on. The MIT economist Abhijit Banerjee says that the fiscal stimulus had no effect because consumption spending did not rise significantly, and that was because the government did not put pin money in the hands of the poor. The second sero-survey suggests that 6 million Indians have come in contact with the virus. Hyderabad hopes to break new ground by introducing online voting in civic polls. Transgenders can self-identify themselves, without having to undergo an invasive medical examination. The 19-year-old victim of the Hathras gangrape case was cremated in the dead of night by the police, though the family and the village community wished to take her body home. And Bilkis of Shaheen Bagh has said that theirs is a movement interrupted. After the pandemic passes, the protests will continue.

Babri demolition: Chronicle of acquittals foretold

Siddharth Varadarajan

Yesterday, we asked, “What prospects for justice after 28 years?” Today, the CBI court in Lucknow gave its answer: None.

The learned judge’s 1,000-page written order is not yet available but the observations he made while holding the accused ‘not guilty’ of the crime of demolishing the Babri Masjid summed up the rationale: there was no proof that the demolition of the mosque was pre-planned, ergo, there could have been no conspiracy. But many of the BJP, RSS and VHP leaders arraigned were also facing charges of incitement, hate speech, rioting and other ancillary offences. Presumably, the judge found that the prosecuting agency, the CBI, failed to make a strong enough case for these charges, too. And thereby hangs a tale.

The Babri Masjid in the 1880s. Photo: Samuel Bourne/Wikimedia

From the casual and arbitrary registering of two FIRs to the manner in which, first the CBI and the Uttar Pradesh crime department, and then the Centre and the UP state government, played passing the parcel with the case, hardly any investigative zeal has been on display in the past 28 years. The BJP did its best to sabotage proceedings when it ruled UP under Rajnath Singh and India under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but others too must share the blame for the delays and lapses that have plagued the case every step of the way.

Going forward, we need to remain focused on two issues.

First, will the CBI, as the prosecutor, file an appeal against these acquittals? Having inherited the indictments, we know the agency dropped the ball on the case over the past six years and left it to the courts to let all the accused off the hook. The CBI’s failure to appeal the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case acquittals provides a clue to what will happen next. Most of the men and women who were accused are past their political prime and utility but an appeal against the acquittal of Nrityagopal Das and Champat Rai ― key office-bearers in the trust overseeing the new Ram temple in Ayodhya ― will cast a shadow over that project. Which is why it won’t happen.

Second, the Babri Masjid demolition and the construction of a Ram temple in its place was never the end point of that project, which was all about fostering and deepening communal polarization in India. The conviction of LK Advani et al might have slowed the project down, but the acquittals will have the opposite effect. Hindutva leaders and activists will be further emboldened to stoke the embers of hatred, especially given rising discontent over the state of the economy. New points of friction will be created. Already, the first rumblings from the ‘fringe’ on ‘Krishnajanmabhoomi’ in Mathura and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi have started, and are being amplified by some TV channels.

Aryabhata’s homeland has unreliable numbers

Sidharth Bhatia

In his ranting and filibustering during the first debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden, President Trump found time to criticize India ― along with Russia and China ― for giving unreliable numbers of Covid-19 deaths. Trump is known for throwaway remarks and random attacks on people and countries, but he may have hit a nerve here.

Despite the 6 million reported cases and nearly 100,000 deaths due to the virus, there have been allegations of under-reporting in various states. This could be for several reasons, not the least due to poor systems in rural areas and fears among many urban Indians about letting the authorities know. Not only is there a stigma attached to getting Covid, people often don’t want to get sucked into the government health system, with all its inadequacies and inefficiencies. Besides, it is possible that local governments may be misrepresenting the cause of death.

But Trump’s comment also highlights what many experts have been warning against ― the unreliability of the Modi government’s data in general. From unemployment to GDP growth to lynchings, the government has either held back the figures, underplayed them or simply changed them around in a way that everything always appears in a good light. Alternatively, it simply says that the data is not available. This, from the government that wants to collect every bit of data on its citizens.

For decades, Chinese official figures were considered suspect, and India was generally seen as transparent. Various organisations like the National Statistical Survey Office were considered fairly efficient and reliable. Not any more, and two senior members had quit when they discovered that post-demonetisation unemployment numbers were not made public by the government. The government obviously believes that by not telling the public anything, it can continue to pretend that everything is rosy.

We may bristle at Trump’s remark, even reject the allegation, pointing to his habit of exaggerating things (“It’ll be yuge!”), but the global perception that India plays fast and loose with numbers will not go away.

The line that China actually controls

Sushant Singh

The Indian foreign ministry has rejected its Chinese counterpart’s written answer to The Hindustan Times, claiming that the LAC between the two countries is the one proposed by premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 to PM Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a historical fact that India has never accepted the 1959 LAC, with the 1993 border agreement between the two countries leaving the description of the LAC unqualified, whether of 1959, 1962 or 1993. The two sides were to exchange maps and clarify the LAC but the process stopped in 2002, after the Chinese side refused to continue after sharing the maps for the Ladakh sector. Maps had been exchanged for the middle sector, comprising Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, but the process has been stalled since. China rejected PM Modi’s offer, made in Beijing in 2015, to delineate the LAC, and reiterated in 2017 the position that the 1959 line was the LAC.

India has never publicly put out its version of the LAC but the exact position of the Indian line is known to the forces guarding the border, who have it marked on their maps. An undefined LAC, or rather an LAC which has not been mutually agreed upon, gives the stronger power ― China, in this case ― a huge advantage. That has been evident in Ladakh during the past 22 weeks, as Beijing has strengthened its hold over areas claimed by both sides.

Price discovery

MK Venu

Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan has questioned the expenditure estimate given by Adar Poonawala, CEO of Serum Institute of India, that Rs 80,000 crore would be needed to produce and distribute a Covid-19 vaccine to all Indians. Poonawala’s company is collaborating to produce a vaccine developed by Oxford University and pharma major AstraZeneca.

The Health Secretary says the cost would be much less, and the government is prepared with the fund requirements. But he did not specify the Indian government’s estimate, as opposed to the figure Poonawala has put out. What might explain the difference in the estimates made by the government and the CEO of Serum Institute?

The answer could lie in a tweet by the Co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch(SJM), Ashwani Mahajan, who also questioned Poonawala’s estimate and argued that the government could well use the provision of compulsory licensing in the Indian Patents Act and produce much cheaper anti-Covid-19 vaccines for all Indians. Under this clause, in the event of an epidemic, India can disregard the premium normally paid for intellectual property rights embedded in the price of the drug to be paid by the consumer. Since Covid-19 is recognised as an epidemic, the Indian government is free to use the instrument of compulsory licensing to mass-produce a patented vaccine at much cheaper prices. India produces 60% of the world’s vaccine inventory.

Something similar was done in 2004 during the spread of bird flu in India. The government persuaded a multinational company to produce the drug required at cheaper prices in collaboration with Indian counterparts for distribution in India. From the health secretary’s statement and Sangh Parivar affiliate SJM’s tweet, it appears that a similar strategy will be employed this time, which the CEO of Serum Institute of India possibly hasn’t taken into account.

Significant opinion:

In The Indian Express, Shyam Menon, former vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University, argues against the false binary of ‘Good students, bad students’. The campus is where students learn to look beyond their personal worlds and become responsible citizens of the world.

In an editorial, The Hindu weighs the costs of vaccine delivery, an issue which remains strangely contested, though the delivery system and its protocols need to be clearly defined long before a vaccine is available in quantities.

That’s it for today. We’ll be with you again tomorrow, on a device near you. If India Index was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) you can get up close and personal by subscribing today.

The India Cable team: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal