Modi Wants a New Kind of Citizen; In Wayanad, the Vaccinated are Now the Majority

Plus: As Afghans seek to flee Taliban, India discriminates on religion; Sitharaman misleads on fuel prices, woman priest takes charge in TN, BJP minister wants poll candidates to raise cows

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

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Snapshot of the day
August 17, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The Supreme Court has issued notice to the Union government during the hearing of a batch of petitions seeking an SIT or court-monitored probe into the Pegasus issue. The move came after the solicitor general cited national security to refuse to share any details beyond what the government had said on Monday – which was nothing – or submit a comprehensive affidavit. “We will issue a simple notice, let the competent authority under rules take decision to what extent information is to be disclosed,” said CJI NV Ramana  as the SG argued for the government forming a technical committee on the issue. The matter will be heard again in 10 days.  The SG’s fear is that if the government admits to using Pegasus, terrorists can take countermeasures. Ironically, if any terrorist group still harboured doubts about the government using Pegasus, the SG’s arguments have made it clear that it does.

A mood of the nation survey by the India Today group is bad news for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though he was the preferred choice for PM by 66% two years ago, he polled just 24% this time. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is next preferred at 11% and Rahul Gandhi weighed in at 10%. Nine out of the top 10 chief ministers are from parties other than the BJP, as are the top five. Surveys are just surveys, but sometimes they are straws in the wind ― or on the camel’s back.

The Union Law Ministry wrote to the Rajya Sabha secretariat on July 15 to disallow a question by an MP on “Indian position in democracy index”, that was to be answered on July 22. The ministry said the question was sensitive. “As per the report of the Economic Intelligence Unit, UK (the publishing agency), the primary cause of democratic regression is erosion of civil liberties and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter said. “As such, it … involves information on trivial matters and raises matters not under the control of bodies or persons not primarily responsible to the Government of India.”

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma has announced a judicial investigation into the recent encounter killing of a former militant leader whose supporters committed vandalism and arson on Independence Day. A vehicle carrying CRPF personnel was attacked by protesters in the Mawlai area of the capital during curfew hours, prompting security forces to use “mild force” to disperse the crowd. The government also extended the curfew in Shillong by another 24 hours. Mobile internet services will also remain suspended for the next 24 hours.

An analysis of data from 68 of Gujarat's 170 municipalities shows there were 16,892 excess deaths between March 2020 and April 2021. Extrapolated to the entire state, it would spell a death toll of at least 2.81 lakh. That is more than 27 times the official COVID-19 death toll in Gujarat. An analysis by The Lancet of a large dataset that captured Madurai’s first Covid-19 wave finds that even though the administration tested at a rate 70% higher than the national average, the city captured only 1.4% of infections and only 11% of deaths among those aged 15 years and older. This suggests that huge volumes of infections and deaths were missed countrywide. The risk of death in the city was higher than in the US or England.

A minister in the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh has suggested that rearing cows be made mandatory for contesting elections. Minister for New and Renewable Energy and Environment Hardeep Singh Dang also proposed a collection of Rs 500 per month from employees of the state government with a monthly salary of more than Rs 25,000 for the protection of cows, and a law to ensure that all sections of society contribute to the noble project.

Last month, the Union Home Ministry said in an answer to parliament that 34 persons had been arrested in Delhi under the draconian UAPA but that it would not be in the public interest to give their details. Well, it turns out the list comprises 26 Muslims, 21 Sikhs, one member of a Scheduled Tribe and two Hindus, both of whom were arrested for their role in the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which discriminates against Muslims. Admitting that minorities bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to “terror” cases is clearly not in the public interest.

Suhanjana Gopinath, 28, made headlines when she was handed an appointment order as female odhuvar (temple priest) by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on Saturday. Along with Suhanjana, 208 persons of all castes including 24 trained priests were given appointment orders by the CM on behalf of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department. Suhanjana took charge yesterday. The first woman odhuvar was appointed in the state in 2007 by Stalin’s father, the late MK Karunanidhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged Indian Olympians who participated in Tokyo to visit at least 75 schools each by Independence Day 2023 to generate awareness about malnutrition. Historically, his government has shown little commitment to school nutrition, and the Union budgetary allocation of Rs 4,000 crore for school breakfasts is being held back


In Afghanistan, India discriminates on religious grounds

India has shut down its embassy in Kabul and has withdrawn all its staff including the ambassador and guards. Only Russia, China, Turkey and Pakistan have kept their embassies functional in the Afghan capital after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Though it has announced a new long-term e-visa for Afghans, the ingrained religious bias of the Indian government was highlighted again when in the first official comments on Afghanistan, it said ​​Hindus and Sikhs in the country would be given priority once commercial flight services resume. 

“We are in constant touch with the representatives of Afghan Sikh and Hindu communities,” the External Affairs Ministry said. “We will facilitate repatriation to India of those who wish to leave Afghanistan.” People in Afghanistan seeking help have turned to social media, but their posts could help the Taliban to identify and locate them.  

Former diplomats have argued that the Taliban’s takeover is a major setback for India. “We should not try to sugarcoat it, principally because the government and the system which had existed for the past 20 years (in Afghanistan) was very close to us. The Taliban, because of its history and how it has staged a revival, is very close to Pakistan,” former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan TCA Raghvan told PTI. Former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan Rakesh Sood said, “Whether it is an expansion of Pakistan’s influence or growing instability and civil war in Afghanistan, it leads to uncertainty in our neighbourhood and creates an adverse security environment.”


Single mother by IVF/ART doesn’t have to declare father’s name

In a landmark judgment, the Kerala High Court has allowed the plea of a single mother, who conceived by in vitro fertilization (IVF), seeking a directive to the state government to strike down from the birth certificate the requirement to identify the child’s father. Justice Sathish Ninan directed the state government to print separate forms for the registration of births and deaths and issuance of certificates in cases relating to conception through Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) by single parents and unwed mothers. Citing a violation of “privacy, liberty, and dignity”, the court observed that human dignity has been held to be an integral part of the Constitution.


Finance Minister misleads with blame game

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has blamed interest payments on the UPA government’s oil bonds for the exorbitant rate of taxation on fuel. She claimed that the government had paid Rs 70,195 crore in interest on oil bonds in the last five years. “I’m paying the burden of oil bonds. If I had the money, I’d have given relief in petrol prices.” Many journalists tweeted that the minister was misleading: “Outstanding oil bonds: Rs 1.3 lakh crore. What the Government earned from excise collections last year: Rs 3.35 lakh crore.” BloombergQuint clarified it further.

Vivek Kaul, who demolished this claim when it was a WhatsApp forward a few weeks ago, explained that “the cost of lower corporate tax rates is being borne by citizens in the form of higher petrol and diesel prices”. He showed that contrary to Sitharaman’s suggestion, the state governments can’t offer much relief: “The sales tax/VAT earned by state governments from petro products was at 1.1% of GDP in 2014-15 and at 1% of GDP in 2020-21. Central government’s excise duty to GDP ratio has gone from 0.8% of GDP to 1.9% during the same period.”  He also highlighted that only 1.7% of the central government’s petrol taxes are shared with the state governments, after the Modi government classified them as cesses in the non-divisible pool.


In Wayanad, the vaccinated are the majority. Elsewhere in Modi’s India, they remain the minority

Wayanad has become the first district in the country to vaccinate nearly 100% of its targeted eligible population, with at least one dose of vaccine against Covid-19. According to the district administration, 6,51,967 people are eligible to be inoculated in Wayanad. Of them, 6,15,729 had been given the first dose of vaccine by 7pm on Sunday. As many as 36,238 people are yet to be vaccinated. Of them, 24,529 are people who tested COVID positive in the last three months and can’t take the vaccine now, and 1,243 are unwilling. The remaining people are either in quarantine or have contraindication. In addition, more than 2,13,277 people have received their second dose of COVID vaccine.

Wayanad became famous in 2019 when Narendra Modi derided Rahul Gandhi for fighting the Lok Sabha elections from a constituency where “the minority is a majority”.


The Long Cable

Seeking new kind of citizen, Modi’s government is no longer of all the people 

Seema Chishti

The Modi government would give its right arm to have itself photographed in a tight embrace with all liberal democracies on the world stage and be counted as one among them. It is anxious to show its supporters its exalted status amongst nations that matter (read: the US, UK, France, Germany, rest of Europe). But each day, it recedes from the standard of a regular Indian government bound by the Constitution and adhering to the principles that afford all an even chance. Just the Independence Day weekend and its position in a key Supreme Court hearing on a constitutional matter, the Pegasus issue, make the nature of the government very clear – it is not here to uphold or speak for all Indians. Far from that, it wants to write its own narrow and dangerous definition of the Indian citizen.

As Kabul was taken by the Taliban, a group whose government India never recognised before, we had the shameful situation of the Ministry of External Affairs saying that it would facilitate the repatriation of “Afghan Hindus and Sikhs” out of Afghanistan and “other locals” who may have helped India. Since the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, accepted as citizens only non-Muslims from three countries, Afghanistan being one of them, this should not surprise. But restating it while a crisis unfolds for all Afghans makes India look pitiably small. Surely, this does not chime with any global or Indian rule book – asking for one’s religion when checking if we can allow in hapless refugees from the region. This takes a page out of RSS guru MS Golwalkar’s We or Our Nationhood Defined, which saw India as a Fatherland exclusively for Hindus.

On the eve of Independence, to again try and distract from the horrors of economic mismanagement, the Covid-19 fiasco and the faltering vaccination campaign, Modi sought to remember August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. His aim is to permanently rip off a scab and reinvent the past as injury done to just one set of people. No Indian government has sought to invoke a selective recounting or recalling of horrors. What does it mean to recall horror alone, without calling for healing, or seeking fellowship and closure? Is that a call for a permanent nightmare? A museum of horrors offers a live demonstration almost every day, with the lynching and hounding of minorities. If groups close to the ruling party are not directly to blame, then certainly it is groups emboldened by them. Even when arrests are made, bail follows as charges are suitably drawn up.

The Centre’s bumbling defiance during the Pegasus hearing is the third example of the type of citizen this government has been keen to create – one that is unquestioning, unmindful and completely okay with the Modi government seeking a permanent settlement to remain in charge. By defying calls for accountability for blatant political spying, which was shown up by the Pegasus Project in a global investigation, the Modi government hopes it can establish that citizens are perfectly okay with whatever it chooses to feed them. In this case, it is dangerously distorting the playing field necessary for a fair election, preparing the ground for a permanent government-state nexus.

As Brecht said, 

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”


Reportedly

The OBC question is fast becoming the Achilles heel of the Modi government. The caste census has stirred up the OBC leadership in UP and Bihar, and now, there’s the matter of the Centre not breaking the 50% barrier of reserved seats, which is not based on proportionate logic. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar is the latest to wade in and say that the Central government’s hasty move to pass the bill giving rights to states to identify OBCs without lifting the 50% reservation limit is to deceive the OBC community. It was clear after the cabinet expansion in Delhi, and then in Lucknow, when the BJP governments shamelessly announced the castes and sub-castes being sworn in. Those who live by the sword… 


Local militancy alive in Kashmir

Contrary to the Modi government’s claims that militancy in Kashmir was wiped out after the scrapping of Article 370, ​​official data reveals that 82 locals joined the militants in the first seven months of 2021 while 88 ultras ― 79 locals and nine Pakistanis ― were killed in the same period by the forces. The spate of recruitment suggests that for every militant killed, a new one is immediately being recruited. 

Last year, 184 locals became militants, compared to 119 in 2019 and 219 in 2018. Though local militants are less effective militarily, they help to galvanise support for militancy and separatism.


Prime number: 72.01%
The rise in price of onions in July, as per Wholesale Price Index data released by the government yesterday. In north India, onions are politically potent vegetables, capable of routing governments. 

Deep Dive

The environment is at greater risk today than ever before. And yet, this is also a time of many levels of engagement to keep ecosystems productive, safe and habitable. This paradox is not special to India, but due to the unique mix of diversity, size and economic and social conditions, the challenge is big. Read Seminar magazine’s August issue on this theme.


Government under pressure in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court yesterday made critical remarks against the government passing the Tribunals Reforms Bill 2021 without debate, reviving the provisions it had struck down earlier. “We have not seen any discussion in Parliament. Of course, Parliament has the prerogative to make laws. At least we must know why the government has introduced the bill despite being struck down by this court… I have not come across any debate, which took place in Parliament (on the bill). Please show us the debate — the reasons and all that,” a Bench led by CJI NV Ramana told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

The Bench gave the Centre 10 days to recruit 19 presiding officers, 110 judicial members and 111 technical numbers in all the tribunals. The Bench said tribunals can function effectively only if they are independent of executive control.“Can you show us the ministry note citing reasons for the bill?” the CJI asked Mehta.


Kabul Express off the rails

Hindi film director Kabir Khan is distraught. He started his career making documentaries in Afghanistan and even his debut feature film Kabul Express was based in and around the country. Today, as he watches the Taliban return to power, he is filled with dread and emotion


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Fortification of grains does not work against malnutrition. Analysts argue for extreme caution in implementing food fortification to address micronutrient deficiencies. Attention must even be paid to the consequences of excess intake when such schemes are offered, writes Amarnath K Menon.


Listen Up

The importance of constitutional morality for the effective functioning of Indian democracy was highlighted by Dr BR Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly debates. But what does constitutional morality mean? Who are its arbiters? And does it exist in India today? Shruti Vishwanathan, Disha Wadekar, Anurag Bhaskar and Malavika Prasad discuss its importance for Indian society.


Watch Out

Watch a segment of Bedabrata Pain’s documentary  Deja Vu on the farmers’ protest in India, which releases at the end of next month, on the anniversary of the movement. This excerpt has US farmers talking about what Indian farmers are saying, about how proud they are of them, and asking them to “hang in there”.


Over and Out

Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap bats for Afghan films

The effects of untreated sewage are felt strongly in India, and Bangalore resident Tharun Kumar turned to cows for a solution. He has designed and built 50 sustainable sewage plants which work rather like a cow’s stomach. 


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