The India Cable: Online Chinese Checkers and India Readies to Go Back to School

UP sees Hathras plot; Mumbai police probes Sushant cyber-campaign, GST woes and more

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam.
Editor: Pratik Kanjilal


Snapshot of the Day
October 6, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

In just over a month, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping will go webcam to webcam at the BRICS summit, and the Indian Air Force chief has declared that his squadrons were prepared to strike after the Galwan Valley clashes. A month ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the maintainers of the Doomsday Clock) had marvelled at the dog that didn’t bark ― three nuclear powers with serious differences posturing in a small space, and the world doesn’t seem to care much.  

The prognosis of the pandemic has deteriorated. While authorities in India had breathlessly declared the imminence of a vaccine, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has now said that only 20% of the population will be covered by April, and WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan expects 70% global coverage ― still short of herd immunity ― by 2022. Infectious diseases specialist Gagandeep Kang suggested last week that it was futile to wait for a perfect vaccine.  

The issue of GST compensations by the Centre to the states remains deadlocked, but the cess has been extended beyond 2022. Hathras gains international fame, with the UP authorities smelling international conspiracies against it. The police have filed 21 FIRs across the state, six of them in Hathras, on charges including sedition. The UN India office expressed “profound sadness and concern”, a rare occurrence reflecting the gravity of the situation. It drew a sharp retort from the government. 


Online Chinese checkers

Sushant Singh

Modi and Xi are likely to come face-to-face in a virtual BRICS summit on November 17, their first meeting since the border standoff in Ladakh began five months ago. However, the chances of a breakthrough are rather poor, with former diplomats suggesting, “The summit will be more of symbolism than substance. A virtual Brics summit will have the limited purpose of the leaders making statements and going through the motions.”

In happier days. File photo of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. Credit: narendramodi.in

But the big diplomatic event currently is happening in Tokyo, where External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will meet foreign ministers of the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quadrilateral or Quad in Tokyo. Tanvi Madan has a great explainer on the Quad in 11 charts. Beijing has already criticised the meeting as an “exclusive clique”, “an anti-China front line” and even a “mini-NATO” led by the US’s “Cold War mentality”, making it clear that it will watch the outcomes closely, even as its tensions with each of the Quad countries grows. C Rajamohan opines in The Indian Express, “If you filter out the noise on the Quad, it is quite clear that Washington is not offering a military alliance. Nor is Delhi asking for one because it knows India has to fight its own wars. Both countries, however, are interested in building issue-based coalitions in pursuit of shared interests.”

Diplomacy seems to be in overdrive as the Indian foreign secretary and Army Chief ― who had been military attache there ― were in Myanmar, gifted over 3,000 vials of Remdesivir and held discussions to further expand ties in a range of areas including connectivity, defence and security.

Meanwhile, tensions between India and China refuse to die down with reports in the Chinese state media that the PLA has commissioned new, modern barracks for soldiers and to station heavy artillery close to the disputed Sino-India border in the Ngari region of Tibet, as part of its “preparations for war” and “concealment”. Another report in The Hindustan Times suggests that there is little hope of disengagement between the armies because of the conditions set by the two sides, which have led the Indian side to believe that comprehensive disengagement and de-escalation would require multiple rounds of military and diplomatic dialogue.

If this looks bad, imagine how bad the situation was on the Sino-Indian border when India lost 20 soldiers in an unarmed clash in Galwan on June 15. The Indian Air Force Chief has revealed that the IAF was prepared to carry out strikes against China after the Galwan Valley clashes. In his annual press conference, ACM RKS Bhadauria said: “Did we come close to striking? No. But were we prepared for it? Yes.” He, of course, said that the IAF is “determined to handle any contingency” without explaining how it could be done with only 30 squadrons of fighter jets, when his two immediate predecessors had stressed that the full authorised complement of 42 squadrons was needed by the IAF for the two-front threat posed by Pakistan and China.


UP takes Hathras to UN

“The UN in India is profoundly saddened and concerned at the continuing cases of sexual violence against women and girls in India,” UN resident coordinator in India Renata Dessallien said in an extremely rare statement made on what are perceived to be internal affairs of a country. Resident coordinators are usually the highest UN official and the chief of the world body’s diplomatic mission in a country. Even though the statement was couched in a complimentary frame, the Modi  government reacted sharply, calling it ‘unwarranted’. But the UN resident coordinator is not alone in expressing concern about the recent events in India. Maria Arena, Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, listed issues of concern in India with a reminder: “It is high time for India to translate words into action.”


It’s raining FIRs in UP

At least six FIRs have been filed in UP’s Hathras alleging a conspiracy for spreading caste discord, for violating Section 144 and for instigating the victim’s family in the village that saw the brutal gangrape and murder. The Hindustan Times reports that at least 17 FIRs including charges of sedition have been filed in the state, as Chief Minister Adityanath “smells an international conspiracy to defame the state government”, in addition to spreading caste violence. At least 13 FIRs relate to social media posts. AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh faced an ink attack when in Hathras yesterday, reports Amara Ujala. Defiantly, he attacked the UP CM for political vendetta. On Sunday, Hathras MP Rajvir Singh Diler visited Aligarh jail, where the four accused are in custody. When the Congress objected, he said that the jailer had only invited him for a nice cuppa. 


“Indian PM” unresponsive to Nagas

The much-vaunted Naga Framework agreement signed in the presence of PM Narendra Modi in 2015 lies in tatters with all hopes of a closure to India’s oldest insurgency receding by the day. In an indicator of the lack of trust and increasing acrimony between Naga rebels and New Delhi, the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN (IM) has released the letter it wrote to PM Modi seven months ago where it says that it wants the peace talks to be restarted at the level of the Prime Minister without any precondition and in a third country. The group said that it released the letter to the media for the sake of “accountability to the Nagas” and to inform them about the delay because of the lack of response from the office of the “Indian Prime Minister”. This is the second document made public by the NSCN(IM) after it made public the 2015 Framework Agreement  to counter the “manipulated” copy of the document circulated by Nagaland governor and the interlocutor for peace talks, RN Ravi.


Aged only three, GST under threat

If the Modi government sees the worst recession in India in 85 years as a national financial emergency, it should readily accept the states’ demand that the Centre must borrow additional funds from the market at cheaper rates and hand over the urgently needed resources to the states. This may sound logical but a stalemate continued over this issue between the Centre and states at the GST Council, which met yesterday. 

There is a massive tax revenue shortfall as India’s economy has shrunk 24% in the April-June quarter. Overall revenues are already 25-35 % less than what was budgeted. This has thrown the expenditure budget on health, education, sanitation, law & order ― all managed by the states ― out of gear. The Centre has conceded that there is a GST compensation shortfall of Rs 2.35 lakh crore, which is due to states. But it has asked the states to borrow it on their own strength from the market. The states argue that the Centre is best placed to borrow at cheaper rates from the market. The Centre has offered to help the states borrow some of this money ― over Rs 1 lakh crore ― via a special window created by the RBI.

This stalemate continues and threatens to undo the spirit of federalism which brought the Centre and 31 states together in a grand bargain to implement the GST reforms. There is now growing mistrust between the Centre and states over how to jointly tide over the current economic crises. The Centre has a greater responsibility to make things work, as it had promised the states when GST was implemented in 2017.

For the first time, at least 10 Opposition-ruled states are threatening to put the current dispute ― who will borrow the funds to meet the massive revenue shortfall ― to a vote in the GST Council. The Centre, which has the support of about 20 BJP-ruled states and Union Territories, wants to avoid a vote because so far, the GST Council has resolved disputes through discussion and by consensus.

If put to a vote, the Centre will need 75% of the votes to have its way. The Centre plus 20 states will have close to a 75% vote share, but it could be touch and go. To maintain the spirit of federalism, it is imperative that the Centre avoid a vote because GST is barely three years old in India. It must seek to build a consensus and reach a compromise with the 10 Opposition-ruled states and resolve all outstanding issues to mutual satisfaction.


Cyber-campaign against Mumbai Police

Mumbai’s Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh has claimed that a massive operation involving no less than 80,000 fake social media accounts was deployed to ‘discredit’ the cops and the state government during the investigations into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

He didn’t say it in so many words, but clearly the finger points at the political opponents of the Maharashtra government, who wanted to show the cops as inefficient and the ruling politicians as hiding something unfavourable. The police had always maintained that the actor committed suicide, while many of the social media accounts identified clearly suggested that he had been murdered, even going to the extent of linking a politician with the foul play.

There is no way to confirm that 80,000 fake social media accounts were set up, but certainly, the entire operation seemed extremely well-coordinated, backed by a structure and funds. Using fake accounts (mostly paid) and bots is a common practice, often deployed in India by political parties to damage the reputation of political opponents, celebrities and even journalists. Often, it works, but mostly it just remains noise, which at best makes a momentary splash.

In this case, however, the sustained campaign, amplified by hyper-ventilating television channels, rattled the state government, which had to time and again deny wild allegations. Now, with a high-level medical panel also confirming that it was a case of death by suicide, the police feel vindicated. The cops will go after a few with a vengeance, if only to make an example out of them.

Meanwhile, the television channels have moved on. The fake social media accounts may get busted, but more will spring up ― spreading lies and rumours is a profitable business.


“Deja vu,” says Justice Srikrishna of Delhi violence

A new report on the Delhi violence in February 2020 has a foreword by retired Supreme Court judge Justice BN Srikrishna, who was the one-Judge Commission on the Bombay riots in 1992/1993. He writes in the Prologue that the riots and police (in)action gave him a “sense of deja vu”. The 227-page report titled Delhi Riots of 2020: Causes, Fallout and Aftermath was released by Citizen and Lawyers Initiative — a group of concerned citizens, lawyers and student. 

Senior advocate Chander Uday Singh, who edited the report, said; “This report is an effort to traverse published reportage on the Delhi violence to piece together multiple pieces of evidence into a credible narrative of the events”. Meanwhile a Delhi court sent former JNU student leader Umar Khalid to judicial custody for 14 days. It also ordered adequate security to be provided to him in prison.


Shivakumar raided again

Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee head DK Shivakumar faces the threat of arrest again by the CBI. A case of disproportionate accumulation of wealth against him has been made by the top investigative agency of about Rs 74 crores. He was arrested after allegations by the Enforcement Directorate in another matter in the disproportionate case on September 3 last year, and got bail after 48 days. “These raids were ordered right when we were announcing a series of protests before the by-elections,” alleged Shivakumar after raids on his premises on Monday morning. Quoting unnamed officials, PTI reported that “Rupees 50 lakh” were found in raids across his premises.


King seeks asylum?

Fugitive Indian businessman, liquor baron and former Member of Parliament Vijay Mallya’s extradition from the UK to India has been stalled by “secret” proceedings that have commenced in the UK, the central government told the Supreme Court on Monday, suggesting that he may have sought asylum in the UK. The apex court wanted to know the exact nature of the “secret” dealings with the UK and asked Mallya’s lawyer if he intended to appear before them in India. The Good Times continue.


Schools to reopen from Oct 15

Pratik Kanjilal

The roadmap to reopening schools from October 15 is now available, with the HRD Ministry issuing guidelines  pointing to systemic changes which could become permanent. Hybrid delivery of education will become the norm rather than an emergency fallback, using classroom teaching and distance education simultaneously. Schools are required to arrange for television and wifi, though this could present serious difficulties. For the foreseeable future, students will also have the option of studying completely from home. There is no compulsion either to physically open or physically attend school. 

While the overburdened schoolchild has been a national problem for decades, a focus on the emotional and mental health of children is anticipated. The traditional pen-and-paper mode of assessment, doom-laden for many children, will be discouraged at all levels in favour of more imaginative methods, like quizzes and games, role playing, projects, portfolios and presentations. A crucial change in assessment, recommended by educators for years, has been embraced by the guidelines: “The  assessment  should  not  focus  on  what  students  have  memorized,  but instead  it  should  focus  on  application  of  learning  and  critical  and  creative thinking in situations relating to daily life. It is not important whether they have solved a problem, it is more important what steps they take to solve it, or how they have tried to solve it.” 

Until mass immunity is developed, distancing and sanitation norms must be maintained, and access control imposed on visitors. Classes must be staggered through the day, ringing the death knell of the morning assembly bell. Schools with adequate space are expected to conduct classes outdoors, which some schools in remote locations have been doing already. Schools are urged to identify teachers and students for teams handling emergency care, support for all stakeholders and hygiene inspection. Regular health check-ups on campus will be institutionalised, and may survive the pandemic. 

Crucially, the ministry’s guidelines devolve the details of feasibility and logistics to state governments and local authorities, to be developed according to their individual realities. It is a liberal document, and if states succeed in implementing it even partially, they would bring sweeping changes to the education system which have been demanded for decades, but were held up by a reluctance to abandon the safety of legacy systems. 


Interesting opeds

In The Wire, Madan B Lokur poses a question with implications for a vast range of issues, from the destruction of evidence by the police at Hathras to the confinement of political prisoners without charge: “If an officer of the state intentionally violates the law, shouldn’t that person be liable for punishment like any citizen?” Or are they above the law?

The Deccan Herald writes of “the deep rot of a lawless state” which has abandoned ideas of decency and fitness, and at least the pretence of going by the book. 

In a strongly worded editorial, Jansatta speaks of janaakrosh (public anger) at the handling of the Hathras incident by the police and the administration. 

In the Hindu Business Line, CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh say that the NSSO’s time use survey finds that it’s all work and no pay for most women in India

In The Hindu, the light at the end of the tunnel is revealed to be the headlights of a certain VIP automobile. 


Now hear this

In the Sandip Roy show, Romila Thapar traces the history of dissent in India, from the Vedic age to Shaheen Bagh. 

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.


From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal