Stan Swamy Dies in Custody; As France Acts On Rafale, Indian Institutions Stay Supine

Plus: PLA sends message etched in stone, BJP states see infighting, ‘immunity booster’ damages liver, Pakistan says no more back-channel talks with India,Tamil bride goes from marital to martial art

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 5, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Father Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old Jesuit priest who spent a lifetime working for the rights of Adivasis before being charged as a terrorist and jailed last October in the National Investigation Agency’s ridiculously elastic Bhima Koregaon case, died of Covid-19 on Monday afternoon. Though he was suffering from Parkinson’s and was clearly not a flight risk, his repeated pleas for bail were denied by the courts. He was India’s oldest prisoner held on terror charges, without bail. The UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor had said that he was “in jail on unfounded charges”. 

The Chinese are sending Indians a tough message from Galwan, etched in stone. The messenger is the Global Times. Indians may continue to publicly ignore it, believing Prime Minister Modi’s dictum of last June, “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai, na hi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain.” (“Neither has anyone intruded on our territory, nor is any intruder there, nor is any of our posts in their possession.”) Or we could seek solace in the total silence that followed. 

Giloy (Tinospora cordifolia), which is among the several alternative medicines recommended by the government as an immunity booster against SARS-CoV-2, causes severe liver damage in patients with underlying autoimmune conditions such as hypothyroidism and diabetes. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology, an international peer-reviewed journal of the Indian National Association for the Study of the Liver. 

Virologist Gagandeep Kang has said that India has wasted valuable information by not conducting any detailed study ― except one of 10,000 persons ― even after 330 million vaccine doses have been administered. The information available can’t be used optimally because databases have not been designed to talk to each other. Covaxin phase 3 data is out in preprint, which means that it is yet to be peer reviewed. The process normally takes up to three months. 

Farm unions are taking their fight back to Parliament. At least 200 protesters will demonstrate outside Parliament every day during the monsoon session, said the Samyukt Kisan Morcha.

Hindu vigilante groups in UP are working with the state police and using a new anti-conversion law brought in by the BJP state government to violently break up interfaith couples and legitimate an anti-Muslim conspiracy theory. Elsewhere, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has urged Muslims not to get “trapped in the cycle of fear that Islam is in danger in India”. 

Vice-chancellors of the state universities of Rajasthan each received a bill of Rs. 68,383 along with 19 unsolicited copies of the biography of Rajasthan governor and former BJP leader Kalraj Mishra, after they attended the book launch on Thursday. The author does not seem to anticipate keen public interest in the story of his life. 

After the fuel price hike on Sunday, the 34th in two months, Sikkim joined the list of states where petrol has crossed the Rs 100 per litre mark: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Punjab and Ladakh. Delhi and Bengal are hovering high in the nervous nineties as the Centre continues to tax fuel heavily, to make up for revenue losses due to the severe economic downturn.

In Kolkata, fuel pump owners are rushing about in search of five-digit displays for their machines as prices threaten to breach the four-digit mark. Clearly, their manufacturers had never imagined a future when fuel would be so dear.   

Bollywood is much more than its stars. Actor Sunny Leone has said she feels for daily wage earners suffering in the lockdown. While actors can stay home for a while, “light boys and spot boys can’t.


BJP gifts Uttarakhand another new CM

Uttarakhand’s third chief minister in nearly as many months has been sworn in, an embarrassment for the BJP, which speaks of one nation, one election. But even before Pushkar Singh Dhami was sworn in, many party leaders had to be pacified and calmed. Senior ministers like Satpal Maharaj, Yashpal Arya, Bishan Singh Chuphal, Subodh Uniyal and Harak Singh Rawat are especially angry

Dhami has never served as a minister. He also lost his phone in a melee at the party office after a meeting with MLAs on Saturday. Everyone looked for it immediately, but it had been nicked already. His tweets in the past, particularly one that shows the RSS map of Akhand Bharat stretching from Afghanistan to the Straits of Malacca, but excluding parts of Kashmir from India’s national borders, are drawing flak. Netizens are asking the police if they will file FIRs against Dhami, since he is a menace to diplomacy in the neighbourhood.


India-Pak talks stalled

Pakistani MPs and political leaders were told during an in-camera briefing on Thursday that the ISI chief had met the Indian interlocutors four times as part of the backchannel talks between the two countries, which led to the reiteration of ceasefire. But the Hindustan Times reports that backchannel contacts have stalled in recent months, largely because of our neighbour’s growing focus on the situation in Afghanistan and pressing domestic issues. Pointing to a near-breakdown, a Pakistani minister and NSA Dr Moeed Yusuf yesterday blamed the Indian R&AW for the Johar Town blast in Lahore last month. Even PM Imran Khan tweeted alleging “Indian sponsorship of terrorism against Pakistan”. In an interview, Yusuf has also said the back-channel process with India has ended as the latter had refused to reverse the change in J&K’s status effected on August 5, 2019.


BJP stamps lotus on government relief, erases Opposition CMs

The BJP states have been asked by party general secretary Arun Singh to use banners carrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi and state chief minister’s pictures at centres where free rations are distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Besides, the lotus election symbol must be printed on ration bags, even in Opposition-run states. There, the chief minister’s photo is to be replaced by those of public representatives and lawmakers. This is a government scheme, but the orders are coming from a ruling party official. 


The Long Cable

French investigate Rafale, Indian institutions including press slumber on

Sushant Singh

The big news coming out of France about a judicial investigation into the Rafale deal made it to the front pages of all major newspapers in India on Sunday, but was missing from television news headlines and primetime debates. The French investigative portal Mediapart, which has been diligently pursuing the story of the Rafale deal for months, reported late Friday that Parquet National Financier (PNF) of France had appointed a judge on June 14 to investigate the deal. The PNF, a judicial institution which probes serious economic and financial crime, was acting on a complaint filed by Sherpa, an organisation set up to legally fight financial crimes and protect and defend victims of such offences.

Sherpa lodged its first complaint on October 26, 2018, but the PNF had declined to probe the deal, with its then head Eliane Houlette going against the advice of one of her staff, “to preserve the interests of France”. Her successor Jean-François Bohnert decided to open a probe after Sherpa updated the complaint on April 28. Sherpa noted that “the discovery of suspicious payments by Dassault Aviation, hidden commissions and bribes paid to Indian intermediaries and the fate of anti-corruption clauses that have disappeared from the deal, are all elements showing the importance of opening an investigation.”

The PNF investigation is focussed on four major areas about the €7.87 billion deal signed by Dassault Aviation, manufacturer of the Rafale aircraft: corruption, influence peddling, money laundering and favouritism. Allegations of corruption emerge from the Mediapart report in April about the Enforcement Directorate’s case file on Sushen Mohan Gupta, who was charged with money laundering in the Agusta-Westland helicopter deal. According to Mediapart, the ED has records which show that Dassault and Thales — a sister concern of Dassault — distributed suspicious commissions of several million euros to Gupta, often through the same shell companies as in the chopper scandal. In its chargesheet against Gupta in May 2019, the ED promised separate investigations in other defence deals involving Gupta — presumably including Rafale — but no such investigation has been ordered so far. That Dassault demanded and got exemption from anti-corruption clauses from the Modi government further adds weight to the allegation.

The case on influence peddling is made by the latest Mediapart report which shows the strategic partnership agreement between Dassault and the Anil Ambani group. In the joint venture company, Dassault had pledged to provide up to €159 million out of the total investment of €169 million, representing 94% of that total. Meanwhile, Reliance’s contribution, it was noted, “shall not exceed €10 million, all in equity”. But the Anil Ambani group held 51% shares in the company even though Dassault brought to the table technology, knowhow, technical assistance and international marketing. The Anil Ambani group was primarily to contribute “marketing of programs and services with” the Indian government. Sherpa evidently considers it to be influence peddling, which the PNF has found fit to investigate further.

In its report in April, Mediapart had shown documentary evidence of transfer of money by Dassault to Gupta for Rafale replicas which were never delivered. That, and other related payments, were flagged by audit authorities in France and would be classified as money laundering. The case for favouritism is about Dassault’s selection of the Anil Ambani group, which had no domain expertise, instead of public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, with the MoU being signed at a fortuitous time for the discredited Indian business group.

The French investigation, once underway, will throw up new facts and information about the deal which has not been made public so far. But the investigation will be focused on the French side of the deal, and the Modi government’s actions will be under scrutiny only collaterally. Other decisions taken in New Delhi needs greater scrutiny (see N Ram’s reports in The Hindu), such as: the exorbitantly high price of Rafale aircraft towards the fixed cost of India-specific enhancements, interference by the PMO in price negotiations with France, the complete opacity of the decision-making process with violation of procedures, removal of anti-corruption clauses, exemption from furnishing a bank or sovereign guarantee, masking of financial data in the CAG report and factual errors in the Supreme Court judgement. Those questions still await answers, which are unlikely to come from France. These would need an investigation in India.

To be clear, the issue is not the capability of the Rafale aircraft or its suitability for the Indian Air Force. The question is about political and financial propriety, not military fitness. Top-level investigations in India can be conducted without prejudicing the employment of the fighter jet by the IAF. As new facts have come to light, the old Supreme Court judgment (given by a bench headed by former Chief Justice of India and current Rajya Sabha MP Ranjan Gogoi) is no longer valid. It is a case fit to be reopened by the Supreme Court, for as John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind ― what do you do, sir?” 

The deal has not been scrutinised by a Joint Parliamentary Committee either, and it is high time Parliament does what it is meant to do. Even the Central Vigilance Commission and Central Bureau of Investigation should be taking note of the new revelations and ordering a preliminary enquiry, unless they wish to bolster their reputation of being ‘caged parrots’. The Enforcement Directorate already has material in its case file to act upon while the Defence Ministry should be investigating the leak of secret documents. And top media houses ought to be competing to dig up more information about the deal. In any semi-functional democracy, all these institutions would be doing their job. This is precisely why the V-Dem report for 2021 classified India as an “electoral autocracy”.

It may seem politically prudent for the Modi government to somehow bury any discussion of wrongdoing in the Rafale deal. But the material in the public domain and the new French investigation will ensure that unpleasant questions will not go away. In fact, they could eventually extract a heavy political price.


Reportedly

Neha, vice-president of AISA’s Delhi unit and a Master’s student at a university under Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi government, has been fined Rs 5,000 for criticising the CM for a fee hike and changes in the reservation policy. She posted her remarks in a chat box during the webcast of the convocation last December, along with many other students, but was singled out for punishment, according to AISA. Kejriwal and his party had entered politics with high-pitched protests, agitations, hunger strikes and demonstrations just seven years ago, and they are now intolerant of dissent. A rather short journey from being the angry young man of the moment to the hypersensitive old man of the establishment.


In BJP states, infighting pandemic in progress

BJP’s Kerala chief has embarrassed the central leadership with his involvement in two cases of corruption, and the chaos in the Uttarakhand party is all too visible. The other BJP states aren’t faring well, either ― UP, Karnataka, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh. In states where it is in the Opposition, such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, too, there is turmoil. The Centre-driven script of installing either an RSS old-timer, or a newbie from a non-dominant caste in the state, is not working. Local ambitions, disgruntlement and politics continue to tear local units apart. Hundreds of defections have been engineered to ensure electoral success, but the need to find room for high profile leaders from rival parties is causing disaffection among old loyalists. The consequences of appointing Himanta Biswa Sarma as chief minister of Assam after a long stand-off, despite Sonowal getting the BJP re-elected, is yet to be dealt with.


Prime Number: Rs 16,000 crore
That's the budget required to give the kin of the Covid-19 dead Rs 4 lakh each, based on the official count of about 4 lakh dead. The Modi government’s reluctance to pay this tiny amount is curious, given that it collects as much in just 16 days only from fuel taxes, and has perhaps even more in the private PM Cares fund.

Deep Dive

CMIE reports that the Ambani and Adani groups have been the only large investors during the second wave of the pandemic. New proposals in 2015-16 added up to Rs 22 trillion. This fell to Rs 19 trillion in 2016-17 and then to Rs 16 trillion in 2017-18. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20 investment proposals stagnated at Rs 16 trillion. The fall in 2020-21 to less than Rs 6 trillion is therefore very sharp. Despite the announcement by two corporate houses, trends seen in the first quarter of 2021-22 do not indicate any signs of revival.


Yoga ashram assumes disturbing position

An investigation into a disturbing scandal involving sexual assault and rape in a yoga ashram is difficult reading. BBC journalist Ishleen Kaur was a yoga teacher with Sivananda, one of the world’s biggest yoga movements, “until a disturbing social media post led her to uncover multiple allegations of sexual abuse spanning decades, right up to the present day.”


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Rahul Verma explains why rural body/panchayat elections in UP need urgent reform. The ruling party can almost always muscle its way to victory.


Listen Up

CoWIN’s smartphone dependence privileged a class of people and locations. Partha Mukhopadhyay tells Yamini Aiyar how the digital divide worked economically, linguistically and spatially.


Watch Out

In this discussion with C Uday Bhaskar, Shyam Saran analyses the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary celebrations, the role of the People’s Liberation Army and the challenges India faces.


Over and Out

Nisha, a 22-year-old bride from Thoothukudi district, Tamil Nadu, performed martial arts wearing a saree on her wedding day to promote self-defense skills. Here, she performs Silambattam ― armed martial arts.

William Dalrymple’s photos of monuments for The Anarchy and his forthcoming The Golden Road are now online at London’s Grosvenor Gallery.


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.