No-Debate Parliament at Turning Point; India Blinks as Blinken Gently Raps Govt on Freedoms

Plus: Pegasus firm 'raided' in Israel, India bunks climate meet, Dhanbad judge killed, Assam-Mizoram crisis could deepen, Delhi to plant flags, Deccan platter, Indian artworks coming home

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
July 29, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Pegasus manufacturer NSO Group was raided today (or visited, depending on your point of view) by the Israeli Defence Ministry.

The move coincide with Israel’s defence minister telling his French counterpart in Paris that his government takes the recent revelations about the use of Israeli spyware against President Emmanuel Macron and politicians, journalists and others around the world “very seriously”. The Indian government, meanwhile, has not sought an explanation from NSO, Israel or anyone else for the targeting of its citizens, presumably because it knows who is responsible. A parliamentary panel meeting in Delhi which was to question government officials yesterday on the spyware issue was postponed due to lack of quorum after a boycott by BJP MPs and the absence of the officials. BJP members opposed the process, saying that if the Congress is not allowing discussion on this issue in Parliament, then it can’t be discussed in the committee meeting. 

A judge has died while on his morning walk in suspicious circumstances, as he was hit by a vehicle which went out of its way. Additional district and sessions judge in Dhanbad Uttam Anand was killed yesterday after he was hit by an unidentified vehicle. After accessing CCTV footage, the Dhanbad police say they will constitute a Special Investigation Team. 

The Catholic Church in India observed July 28 as ‘National Justice Day’. They said it was “a day to remember and pray for all those who cry out for justice and we, as a society, have an obligation to ensure justice to all.” The Jesuit Conference of India spoke of the late Father Stan Swamy, one of the 16 Bhima Koregaon accused, who died in custody, saying his death was not an end but yet another “moment in our awakening in our journey to affirm our faith in the Constitution of our country.”

Twitter Inc is fast losing favour with many central government departments and ministers keen to promote home-grown rival Koo, while the US platform comes under fire for non-compliance with new laws framed by the Modi government, reports Reuters.

Veteran actor Kamal Haasan has submitted before a Parliamentary panel the “dangerous aspects” of the Draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which “strangles the voice of freedom of expression”. The actor is also founder of Makkal Needhi Maiam and had appeared before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology chaired by Congress Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor this week.

There was a whistleblower in Parliament yesterday, and an angry and assertive Opposition ― all non-BJP parties closed ranks ― marched in the rain from Sansad Bhawan to Vijay Chowk to tell the media why they wanted a debate on the Pegasus issue. In the House, papers were torn as Speaker Om Birla tried to carry on business as usual. A visibly upset Opposition had been told that there would be no discussion, but only clarifications on the IT minister’s statement on the Pegasus issue. The Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut said the Opposition was united and if the government doesn’t want to talk about national security, then what does it want to talk about?

Madhya Pradesh has the highest seroprevalence or seropositivity at 79%, followed by Rajasthan with 76.2%, then Bihar with 75.9% while Kerala makes the bottom at 44.4%. These are the findings of the latest sero-survey conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research. 

“In India, we aren’t accustomed to treating migrants as full citizens. We don’t protect their rights and we certainly don’t allow them to represent us or sit in judgment on the actions of the powerful or the state. But the Janta ka Faisla showed clearly that a jury of migrants can not only take on the burden of being a collective witness, their perspective adds insights that are missing from the views of the powerful who are routinely represented in the media,” aver Gangaram Paikra, Rajesh Kasturirangan and Biraj Patnaik, whose organsations helped organise the event. The jury was comprised entirely of migrant workers.

The Delhi government is spending Rs 84 crore to install 500 giant flags. The budget for the tricolour project is larger than the amount AAP plans to spend on key welfare schemes. 

Adivasi activists are angry because there is no adivasi column in Census 2021. They abhor being termed ‘vanvasi’ or forest-dwellers, and demand that adivasi or their indigenous status be accorded to them, to be declared as their religion. Not calling tribals indigenous is an old Sangh bid. It would mean that they were here first.  

Atrocity cases against SC/STs in 2018 decreased approximately by 11.15% from 2017, but increased by 11.46% in 2019 from the previous year, the government told Parliament. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, in 2019, 49,608 cases were registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in conjunction with the IPC, while 44,505 cases were registered in 2018 and 50,094 in 2017.


Land of the Free questions record of key ally India, but gently

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday gently nudged the Modi government to allow the media, the judiciary and civil society to freely uphold democratic principles in India, while cushioning the blow by noting that all democracies, including the US, are works in progress. The shared “commitment of India and the US to democratic values” is part of the “bedrock” of their relationship, Blinken said. He tacitly conveyed to External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar America’s concerns that India is backsliding on human rights and freedoms. 

Democratic erosion has been a prominent part of the bilateral conversation since the Biden administration took office in January, reports The Hindu. Prior to the visit, the State Department had announced that in Dehi Blinken would speak of the shrinking of democratic space and pressure on the free media. “Freedoms are important, we all value them. But never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance,” said Jaishankar, springing to the defence of the Modi government, which has earned widespread global criticism. He also spoke somewhat cryptically about the need to right “historical wrongs”, presumably a reference to the scrapping of Kashmir’s autonomy, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act – which makes Muslim refugees from South Asia  ineligible for Indian citizenship, part of what the BJP regards as the unfinished agenda of partition – and perhaps even his government’s backing of the Ayodhya temple, which Jashankar had hailed in 2020 as “a pledge redeemed, a heritage reaffirmed”.

Bloomberg reports that Blinken’s language illustrates the difficult balancing act President Joe Biden must perform as he takes on China over values. The US seeks to rally friendly nations against an increasingly autocratic Beijing, while grappling with the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at home and the human rights record of key allies, including India. Beijing was quick to respond to Blinken’s comments. “Democracy is a common value of humanity. It is not patented by any country,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing. “It is not democratic at all to undermine others while portraying oneself as superior.”


Plot thickens on Assam-Mizoram border 

The Assam-Mizoram standoff may get worse. The two chief ministers appear to be handling it like an external dispute. A team of Assam Police will be in Delhi to question Mizoram's Rajya Sabha MP K Vanlalvena on what they say is a deliberate, unprovoked attack by the Mizoram Police near the border on Monday. Six men of the Assam Police died, along with a civilian, on Monday. Assam has alleged a conspiracy and accused the Mizoram MP of involvement. Outside Parliament House, Vanlalvena told reporters: “More than 200 policemen entered our territory and they pushed back our policemen from our own posts, and they gave firing orders first, before we fired. They are lucky that we didn't kill them all. If they come again, we shall kill them all.” The Centre looks increasingly inept at handling these NDA-ruled states, though there is a meeting of minds on having the ‘neutral’ Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on the border.

Meanwhile, Mizoram is suffering a blockade of sorts. The fear of possible violence at the border and protesters enforcing a bandh in Assam’s Barak Valley have halted Mizoram-bound trucks well short of the interstate border. Life in the three districts of Assam’s Barak Valley was also affected due to the 12-hour bandh.


India skips London climate meet, resists fossil fuel phaseout

India, the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, skipped a key climate meeting of more than 50 countries, the Environment Ministry said, citing technical and other difficulties. The two-day conference in London was the first face-to-face talk among governments in more than 18 months, and offered a chance of compromise ahead of the Glasgow COP26 climate summit in November. The talks on Sunday and Monday followed a G20 meeting last week in Naples, where the leaders failed to reach a consensus, with India resisting a timeline to phase out coal power. Russia, China and Turkey also resisted. 

The London meeting also ended without an agreement to phase out polluting fossil fuels, according to Britain’s COP26 president, Alok Sharma. Gaurav Khare, spokesman of the Environment Ministry, said the government had decided against attending the London conference as it had already made its views known at the G20 in Naples. 


The Long Cable

A turning point in Parliament’s place in democracy

Seema Chishti

Extraordinary scenes are playing out in Parliament, ones we should not ignore.

Two incidents from yesterday are among the most significant moments in the 17th Lok Sabha. While all eyes have been on the dubious project to make the present Parliament building a museum, we forgot about the representatives who inhabit it, and who represent the people of India.

First, the BJP MPs thwarted the quorum required for the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, headed by Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, to discuss Pegasus. Moreover, ministry representatives from MeITy and Home Affairs, summoned by the committee, did not appear. At most, this committee of 31, widely regarded as toothless, would have recorded statements. But it appears that the Modi government cannot risk saying anything at all on the Pegasus affair.

Then, 14 Opposition parties (all except the TMC, which was there in spirit) marched in the rain from Parliament to Vijay Chowk and addressed the media on how Pegasus is distorting institutions intended to protect the democratic edifice, and distorting democracy by altering the playing field.

These events of yesterday should give pause. How far down the hill has Indian parliamentary democracy rolled? If democracy is “government by discussion”, then we don’t have it any more. No Deputy Speaker has been elected so far, as if to undermine the place of the Opposition. What is being witnessed was foretold last year, when three farm bills were rammed through Parliament. There was no debate or vote, just a waving of hands by the leader of the House. All Opposition members were present and waiting, anxious for a debate, but they were ignored. 

The Opposition is not giving the government a free pass now, and not agreeing to a ‘clarifications only’ session further to the IT Minister’s statement, which he made minutes before he discovered that he, too, was on the potential list of Pegasus targets. This is an altogether new phase of Parliament, and of its relationship to democracy.

Before the farm bills, too, there was stubborn reluctance to have any pre-legislative discussion, let alone committees to scrutinise legislation. In the 15th Lok Sabha, 71% of bills were sent to committees for a more thorough look, and 60% in the 14th Lok Sabha, and just 11% in the current Lok Sabha.

The conduct of Parliament as spectacle, which was witnessed two years ago in bombastic and dramatic scenes about Kashmir, and a Constitutional amendment was introduced and passed without the necessary notices and advance information, appears to have now made way for continued disregard for the central forum of India’s democracy. 

Parliament, the foremost legislature, tasked to hold the Executive to account, is at a turning point. By implication, so is India’s democracy. Having their say is the least that numerically smaller parties in Parliament can hope for. Since the NDA got 45% of the vote, the Opposition is taken to speak for at least 55% of the Indian people. But with the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal and a section of the Lok Janshakti Party out of the NDA umbrella, the Opposition accounts for about 60% of votes polled. They must have their say, even if the government will eventually have its way.

In Nagaland last week, the last of the Opposition members walked over to join the NDA-backed chief minister, leaving the state Opposition-free. That cannot be the preferred blueprint for Delhi, where the BJP came to power because an Opposition party could win. It cannot now want to choke off the pipelines and propagate a no-discussion, consultation-free dispensation bordering on absolute monarchy. 

The government thinks that Parliament and its committees have to be crushed, but this will have serious implications, particularly for those who want to turn Parliament House into a museum. When V-Dem termed India an “electoral autocracy” or Freedom House called it “partly free”, we could hold out by citing autonomous elections and a functioning, healthy and multi-party Parliament. Can we do so any more?


Reportedly

New Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai has got off to a bristling start on the Cauvery water issue: “Legally we are on the right side. It is our right to utilise surplus water in the Cauvery basin.” An all-party delegation from Tamil Nadu had met the Union government some time back, and the AIADMK’s Sellur Raju said that the Union Minister of Water Resources has assured them that the Mekedatu Dam won’t be built as per the Mysore and Madras agreement (1892). After the violent fracas on the Mizoram-Assam border in which six policemen were shot dead, the BJP government must do better to cement the social compact. The Centre has said in the Lok Sabha that meetings of the National Integration Council, the apex body mandated to fight communalism, casteism, regionalism and parochialism, has not met for nearly eight years, ever since the Modi government came to power ― and meetings aren’t required.


Mauritius funds invest in Adani

Bloomberg reports that “four Mauritius-based funds that have attracted attention for parking almost all their money in companies controlled by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani have a history of investing in firms which ended up defaulting or were investigated for wrongdoing.” Last week, the Finance Ministry told Parliament that certain Adani Group companies were being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India for compliance issues. 


Prime number: Variable/Indeterminate
How many Covid-19 vaccines doses is India producing? The Modi government has multiple answers to one simple question, and some were shared in Parliament on the same day.

Uttarakhand court raps govt on Covid, schools to reopen

The Nainital High Court strongly reprimanded the BJP-run Uttarakhand government for not following Covid protocols at tourist destinations. The court has also banned the Char Dham Yatra till August 18. Meanwhile, the state government has ordered schools in Uttarakhand to resume for classes 6 to 12 from August 1.


Deep Dive

Deccan Platter

There’s a new website on the Deccan, its history, cultures, languages and philosophy, a labour love by the economist Amit Basole, who teaches at Azim Premji Univeristy, More instances of India’s breathtaking diversity. 


Indian artworks coming home

The Guardian reports that the National Gallery of Australia will return 14 works from its Asian art collection to the Indian government. Worth $3m, 13 of them were purchased in 2002-2010 from Art of the Past, the now-infamous New York gallery run by the dealer and alleged antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor. One came from the late New York dealer William Wolff in 1989. They comprise six stone and bronze sculptures, mostly dating back to the 11th or 12th century, and a brass processional standard or alam from Hyderabad, dated 1851. There is a painted invitation scroll or vijnaptipatra from Rajasthan dated around 1835, and six photographs.


India in UK red zone

Fully vaccinated travellers from the US and EU can avoid quarantine on arrival in England from Monday, as part of the amber list, but India remains on the UK’s red list, which bans travel and imposes a 10-day hotel quarantine on returning British residents. With the Delta variant first detected in India remaining the dominant variant in the UK, India’s status remains uncertain.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • India could have been saved from the Pegasus scourge had it followed the example of the UK, which had the most opaque intelligence system but transformed itself into a transparent and effective model, writes Vappala Balachandran.

  • Anurag Behar writes that decades of hard-won educational gains could be lost if we don’t reopen schools at the earliest, with rigorous procedures and under expert advice, and recognise that vaccination is the biggest priority for the resumption of education.

  • Schools must be prepared for three scenarios — a strict lockdown, partial movement and the lifting of restrictions. The response of schools has to be localised, by involving parents, decentralising decision-making and giving schools greater financial autonomy, write Yamini Aiyar and Rukmini Banerji.

  • The new Cooperation Ministry by itself will not be able to undermine the existing cooperative structure, but with the RBI working in tandem, the arsenal can be deadly, writes TM Thomas Isaac. It will provide an opportunity for Amit Shah and his new ministry to enter the cooperative sector of states with their parallel Multi State Cooperatives and branches.

  • “Hazrat Mahal, it will not be unfair to assume, was not evoked by the peasants of Awadh in the way Lakshmibai was by the kisans and artisans of Jhansi and Bundelkhand. For the 150th anniversary of the uprising, Hazrat Mahal was scarcely commemorated. There was perhaps only a passing mention. Forgotten and unsung, Hazrat Mahal has travelled unclaimed in the luggage van of 1857,” writes Rudrangshu Mukherjee in his new book ‘A Begum and A Rani’.

  • Prakash Padukone writes in Sportstar on Nandu Natekar: “Nandu came one generation before me. I’ve seen him play during the later stages of his career. He was one of the most stylish badminton players in the world, alongside Suresh Goel and Trilok Nath Seth. In his era — 50s and 60s — the focus was on style and grace, not power.” 


Listen Up

Anthropologist Shreyas Sreenath interviews researcher and activist Swathi Seshadri, who recently co-authored a report of the All India Central Council for Trade Unions on labour conditions at Bangalore’s crematoria and cemeteries. They discuss the significance of funerary work in holding together the fabric of our social, psychic, and spiritual lives, in times of stability and crisis. They also discuss caste prejudice, which routinely degrades communities working with the dead.


Watch Out

At Manthan, Seema Chishti (a contributor to The India Cable) and Prasanna S discuss the Pegasus snooping case and the threat it presents to Indian democracy. 


Over and Out

The 85-minute single-take film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam was shot inside a car. From conceptualization to filming the entire movie inside a car, actor Rima Kallingal and director Don Palathara talk about its making. 

The trailer of the award-winning film on Khabar Lahriya, Writing With Fire, on Dalit women journalists, is out.


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.