India’s Wheat Export Ban Thwarting Global Efforts Against Food Inflation; Sarkari View of What’s Allowed and What’s Not has Created Free Speech Crisis in India
TV anchors who spur violence go unpunished, 65% prime time debates are on communalism, AltNews beset by cases, Indian surrogacy market moving to Georgia, Trader Joe’s unfairly undercuts Brooklyn Delhi
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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
June 10, 2022
Another day, another low. Despite RBI-led intervention, the rupee fell 8 paise to 77.82 against US dollar, yet another record, in early trade today.
India’s current account deficit is likely to hit a three-year high of 1.8% or $43.81 billion in FY22, as against a surplus of 0.9% or $23.91 billion in FY21, says India Ratings. CAD in fiscal FY23 will suffer as exports face difficulties and higher global commodity prices increase the value of imports.
The Centre yesterday denied that visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke of the controversial remarks on the Prophet Muhammad made by now-suspended BJP leaders, which drew widespread anger. An Iranian statement had claimed that he raised the issue in a meeting with National Security Adviser NSA Ajit Doval. The Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment and suggested that Iran had “withdrawn” the claim. But the Iran government website’s readout of FM Abdullohian meeting with NSA Doval still quotes the NSA to the effect that action against BJP spokespersons is “a lesson for others”.
In an interaction with Islamic scholars in Delhi yesterday, the Iranian minister said that Indian Muslims contributed to strengthening peace in the country: “The leaders of the Muslim community in India are a good example of strengthening peace, empathy and respectful coexistence… They will not allow the growth of any phenomenon against the will of the majority of the people of India and the subcontinent.”
Surrogacy in India was a $375 million business spread across 3,000 clinics before the ban in December. That’s almost a tenth of what Global Markets Insights estimates is a $4 billion global market that’s expected to grow by almost a third by 2027. The ban is pushing India’s share — which relies on affluent Indians as one in six urban couples struggles with infertility — overseas. Georgia, a rare nation where commercial surrogacy is legal and inexpensive, is emerging as a favoured destination.
Export prices of Indian rice rose further this week, supported by strong demand and concerns that the world’s top exporter of grain could restrict shipments. India’s 5% broken parboiled rice was sold at $357-362 per tonne this week, compared with $355-360 last week. The surprise ban on wheat exports has prompted rice traders to increase purchases and place unusual orders for longer-dated deliveries.
Taiwan and Iran have rejected three containers of Indian tea due to phytosanitary issues and the presence of pesticides beyond permissible limits. Falling tea exports from Sri Lanka due to the financial crisis opened newer markets for Indian tea, but rejections can play spoiler.
Next week in Geneva, the world’s trade ministers will consider a proposal backed by more than 50 nations to avoid international food export restrictions that may spark hunger-driven instability in volatile regions. PM Modi’s ban on wheat exports from India is thwarting international efforts to combat food inflation, reports Bloomberg. New Delhi is effectively stymieing all negotiations at the WTO and putting at risk the G7’s effort to cool prices. India is also blocking a popular deal to aid the World Food Program’s ability to purchase critical foods for humanitarian aid. The US and other major agricultural exporters fundamentally oppose India’s request to stock up unlimited reserves of subsidised crops and then dump them on global markets.
A two-year-old digital database was meant to consolidate land records and make life easier for millions of farmers in Telangana. Instead, the names of hundreds of farmers in at least four villages in Ranga Reddy district have been erased from the records on the Dharani platform. Affected farmers are protesting land acquisition for a sprawling industrial park and allege state manipulation. It’s a ‘technical error’, say officials, but the problem hasn’t been fixed for nearly a year, reports Article-14.
Aadhaar cards of Nepalese people and migrant labourers have been misused by cyber criminals in 5-10% of cyber fraud cases in the past two years in Himachal Pradesh, The Tribune reports. Scammers are using Aadhaar information to open online bank accounts, which are used to dupe people. Narvir Singh Rathore, ASP, cyber crime, Shimla, told The Tribune that the miscreants ask for bank account details of people on the pretext of depositing money and then send them a link. When the victim clicks on it, money is transferred from their accounts.
Priests of the Sri Nataraja temple in Chidambaram are refusing to show records and account details to officials. The dikshitars did not allow the five-member team to meet the Pothu Dikshitars’ secretary and advocate, following which the Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department (HR&CE) said that the government might consider legal action. The HR&CE department has been sending notices and reminders from 2014, asking the temple dikshitars to submit details of revenue, expenditure, audit reports, properties and lands.
Families of the dead in Madhya Pradesh are having to carry corpses on their shoulders, or in a cot or cart, for want of ambulances in government hospitals.
Mohammed Zubair — who drew global attention to the abuse of Islam’s Prophet by a now-suspended BJP spokesperson — faces five criminal cases, the latest for referring to three Hindu extremists booked by police in hate speech cases as “hate-mongers”. The crew of 13 at India’s leading fact-checking website AltNews needs a battery of lawyers to contest cases and endless legal notices. Amid abuse and online threats of violence, they call out a flood of misinformation, mostly generated by people close to India’s ruling party.
Unsuspecting celebrities are reposting staged Indian ‘CCTV’ videos on Facebook, about half of which target Muslims. They carry disingenuous disclaimers and are picked up by the disinformation ecosystem, reports AltNews.
When Indian-origin Chitra Agarwal introduced her roasted garlic achaar in the US, there was no product like it in the market, she told NBC. She has been running her own condiment brand, Brooklyn Delhi, since 2014. Trader Joe’s picked Brooklyn Delhi’s Coconut Cashew Korma, but it didn’t work out. After three months, Agarwal found out that Trader Joe’s had introduced an ‘Indian Style Garlic Achaar Sauce’, which was similar to Agarwal’s product. A viral TikTok video accused Trader Joe’s of watering down traditional South Asian products. Its packaging was also similar and the use of the word “achaar” is striking. While Brooklyn Delhi’s achaar costs $12 a jar, Trader Joe’s costs $2.69. The recipe is not patented.
China ticks off Gen Flynn
Certain US officials are pointing fingers and sowing discord between China and India using the border issue, which is despicable, and the two countries can deal with problems through negotiation and dialogue, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday. Charles Flynn, commander of the US Army Pacific, said on Wednesday that Chinese activity near the China-India border is “eye-opening”. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the border situation is stable, and China and India are willing to deal with related problems through negotiation and dialogue. “You are an Indian reporter and know very well the current situation on the China-India border,” Zhao told a reporter, adding that frontline troops have achieved disengagement in most areas along the western section of the India-China border.
The MEA spokesperson said in Delhi: “The government is committed to and takes all adequate and appropriate measures to safeguard territorial integrity and sovereignty, as the developments in recent years have clearly demonstrated.” He said the government has taken steps to develop infrastructure for strategic and security reasons, and to spur economic development. About eastern Ladakh, he said, “We have maintained continuous communication with the Chinese side both through diplomatic and military channels.”
Despite animus, AIADMK-BJP alliance to last
Tensions have been running high between the AIADMK and the BJP in Tamil Nadu, but senior leaders say that the alliance is a “marriage of compulsion” that will survive at least until the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Over the past week or so, a war of words has raged publicly between the allies in Tamil Nadu. At an event last week, AIADMK organisational secretary C Ponnaiyan lambasted the BJP and accused the Union government of following “anti-Tamil” policies. He also described the alliance as an “electoral adjustment” and alleged that the BJP was trying to grow at the expense of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.
Apply, apply, no reply
The Prime Minister’s Office says that it is unaware if any action was taken in response to the July 2019 open letter written by 49 celebrities asking PM Modi to act against mob lynchings and hate crimes. This has been revealed by the PMO in response to an RTI query. At the time, a BJP supporter had filed an FIR against the 49 personalities, including Ramchandra Guha, Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal and Anurag Kashyap.
In a strong response, 185 more celebrities issued a statement: “more of us will speak every day” against mob lynching, silencing of the people and misuse of courts to harass citizens. The original case was shut down eventually. Ram Kumar, in an RTI application filed in September 2019, sought to know what “requisite steps” were taken by the PM in the matter. With no information forthcoming, Kumar filed two appeals over the years.
Car-owners say mileage issue, not age
The Union’s plan to take millions of older cars off the roads faces a challenge: a new survey shows that most vehicle owners aren’t interested in trading in their automobiles according to age. Some 57% of 10,543 vehicle owners surveyed by LocalCircles say it should depend on mileage. The government last year mandated that personal vehicles over 20 years old and commercial vehicles over 15 years old must undergo fitness tests to remain on the road.
Over half of consumers surveyed said they plan to reduce the number of cars they own because the cash-for-clunkers policy will make it more expensive to keep an old vehicle. Fitness tests are up to eight times more expensive since April.
The Long Cable
The sarkari view of what’s allowed and what’s not has created a free speech crisis in India
The Constitution of India protects freedom of speech subject only to a handful of restrictions “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Article 19 (2) makes it clear that these restrictions cannot be applied in an arbitrary or subjective manner but must be “reasonable” and based on specific laws.
The Indian Penal Code contains a handful of provisions which criminalise certain kinds of speech – namely Section 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 153B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), and 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs). There is also the notorious 505, which criminalises ‘statements conducing to public mischief’.
Anyone who reads these provisions will be struck by the ambiguity and lack of precision with which they have been drafted. However, even if these provisions enable free speech to be curbed, the constitution says they have to be invoked in a reasonable manner. And that is where the problem lies.
A committed constabulary, operating under political instruction, can read these sections in such a way that an FIR under 153 or 153A is filed for speech which does not even remotely promote enmity or violence between groups. A comment or observation on religion can be classified by the police as an ‘insult’ under 295A even when a reasonable person would not see it as one. Conversely, speech which falls squarely within the IPC definitions of what is proscribed can be ignored if the person making the speech is politically useful for the ruling establishment. Thus, laws which are meant to curb hate speech may end up giving a free pass to those actively promoting enmity and violence while penalising those who are opposed to hate.
What we have seen over the past two weeks is a textbook example of this double jeopardy at work. It took more than 10 days for Delhi Police to file a criminal case against BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal for their comments about the Prophet of Islam. Delhi Police reports to the Union Home Ministry. Even those FIRs would not have been filed had the issue not blown up internationally, causing embarrassment for the Narendra Modi government. There are also indications that cases have been registered in the National Capital so as to make the case for the investigation to be conducted in Delhi itself, rather than by the police in opposition-run states like Maharashtra and Telangana, where similar cases have been filed.
However, the most shocking aspect of the Delhi Police’s approach is the filing of a hate speech case against the prominent journalist Saba Naqvi. Her ‘crime’ was to share a meme on Twitter comparing the dome of a nuclear reactor to a shivaling. The context, of course, was the controversial claim being made by Hindutva activists that a dome-like stone structure seen at the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi is a shivling and not a fountain as the mosque authorities insist. The Hindutva claim is part of a land-grab exercise where the mosque is sought to be converted into a temple. Thousands of people poked fun at the lameness of the exercise, including Naqvi. If someone is trying to use religion to grab what is not theirs, others are entitled to oppose them, including with the use of satire. Nupur Sharma went one step further in her so-called apology note when she said the very act of someone calling the shivling a fountain amounted to insulting Shiv. This is arrant, self-serving nonsense.
Naqvi will no doubt get relief in the courts but the process will not be speedy. It took The Wire more than a year to get a bogus case registered against its journalists by the Uttar Pradesh police quashed in the Allahabad High Court.
This week also brought disturbing news from Kashmir, with the Srinagar police saying they have opened an investigation into a reporter for The Caravan, Shahid Tantray, for a story he wrote on an Army-sponsored event in Srinagar. Some of the individuals who took part in the event have apparently complained to the police that the report has painted a target on their backs and they now face a heightened threat from terrorists. The investigation opened by the police represents an attempt to create new restrictions on free speech that the Constitution does not envisage. Reporting the presence or absence of someone at a public event can hardly be considered incitement of an offence. Yet the police wants Tantray to join the investigation. According to a statement issued by the reporter, the police have been warning him of dire consequences for some time now – a threat that other Valley-based reporters have also been served.
The Union government claims to be very sensitive to the needs of the Northeastern states. Now, it will be tested in Mizoram. Major civil society groups in the state have been asking Delhi to replace state Chief Secretary Renu Sharma with an officer who can speak Mizo. Public protests have begun because the Centre has been unresponsive. Sharma, an AGMUT cadre officer of the 1988 batch, was appointed in October when her predecessor Lalnunmawia Chuaungo retired. Oddly, on the same day, Chief Minister Zoramthanga named Additional Chief Secretary JC Ramthanga to the same post. The confusion ended when the Centre’s nominee prevailed.
Opposition to Sharma has the tacit support of the state government, which may explain why the issue has not died down, and why the Centre is treading carefully. The buzz is that the Home Ministry may decide to quietly buckle.
Prime Number: 65%
The percentage of prime time news debates in May on television that were on communalism.
The Caravan on BJP leader Praful Patel’s war on the Muslim-majority Union Territory of Lakshadweep, where he was appointed Administrator by the Centre.
Opeds you don’t want to miss
PM Modi will walk the tightrope by telling Middle Eastern leaders what they want to hear, while quietly supporting party members who insult the Prophet and abuse Muslims, writes Islamophobia watcher CJ Werleman.
Hounded by the ruling party and abandoned by the so-called secular Opposition parties — none of which reacted until Muslim nations raised the issue a week later — Muslims draw succour from the global outrage. But it’s at best temporary, writes Debashish Roy Chowdhury in Time.
Andy Mukherjee writes that fragile government finances spell the risk of fiscal dominance of monetary policy. Right now, inflation is giving an unexpected boost to tax revenue. But as Nomura’s Nandi says, monetary tightening is “far from the finishing line.”
What India had lost post-Babri was precious. Gone with the rise of the Hindu zealot was the moral high the country always had as a non-denominational secular state, writes Vinod Sharma.
Lt Gen HS Panag (retd) writes that the armed forces account for nearly 15% of India’s annual expenditure. The RTI Act helps citizens track corruption in procurements, construction and defence deals. Blanket exemption from the RTI Act will affect the welfare of soldiers and make the armed forces financially unaccountable.
The main criterion for selecting the next CDS will remain “pliability”, as the deep state continues to pursue agendas which were set in motion even before Gen Bipin Rawat was made Army chief, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd).
Since India and Pakistan committed to manage rivers responsibly, the Indus Waters Treaty can be a reference point to resolve other water-related issues in the region, writes Mukesh Kumar Srivastava.
Let not the authoritarian State brush the contributions of NGOs aside, do thought control and erase constitutional practices, writes Shelley Walia.
While India may have little to gain at the WTO Ministerial Conference, the country must not lose the war of perceptions that developed nations will wage over food security, the environment and public health, writes Amiti Sen.
Seema Chishti (a contributor to The India Cable), author of Sumitra and Anees: An Indian Marriage ― Tales and Recipes from a Khichdi Family, explains how her parents’ marriage shows changes in India and how food can be used to unite or divide.
TV news anchors contribute to structural violence against Muslims but aren’t prosecuted. They tell people that Muslims are invaders and predators, and it has consequences, but it is not recognised by criminal law, says Supreme Court lawyer Shahrukh Alam.
Over and out
The photographer Sam Tata was equally at ease on the street and in the studio. He took portraits of celebrities from Prithviraj Kapoor to Leonard Cohen, and also collaborated with Henri Cartier-Bresson to capture a snapshot of Shanghai at a crucial moment, as the People’s Liberation Army took over in 1949.
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.