The India Cable: Akhlaq ‘Fast-Track’ Trial Starts, 5 Years Late; India ‘Not Even Illiberal Democracy’

Plus: Modi praises Bangladesh as Amit Shah attacks Bangladeshis, China threat ‘abated but not dissipated’, vaccine diplomacy halted, Patricia Mukhim FIR quashed, nun attacks to hurt BJP in Kerala

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
March 26, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The entire crew of MV Ever Given, the container ship stuck in the Suez Canal since Tuesday blocking traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways, is Indian and is safe, said the company managing it.

Russian satellite image of the MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal. Photo: Twitter

The waterway could be unusable for weeks, and the predictable jokes about Indians causing traffic jams wherever they go are all over social media. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi left this morning for Bangladesh, where he will attend the birth centenary of ‘Bangabandhu’ Mujibur Rahman and join celebrations of 50 years of the country’s independence, along with other heads of state and government of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. Dozens of students were injured yesterday as police cracked down on a demonstration in Dhaka against his visit. With an eye fixed on the West Bengal elections, Modi will also visit a temple of the Hindu Matua community. 

Yesterday, at an election meeting in Purulia, West Bengal, Amit Shah struck a jarring note by ranting about illegal ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh “eating” up the rice rations and rights of Indians. But in a special oped to the Dhaka Daily Star today, Narendra Modi has expressed high-minded opinions, including the formation across borders of “a closely integrated economic region, with deeply interlinked value-chains spanning food processing to light industry… Most of all, imagine a scenario wherein our people could study, work, and do business effortlessly across this subcontinent—the world’s largest pool of young people joining their energies to create wealth, innovation and drive new technologies. This would have been the most natural vaccine against the toxic infusion of radicalism, violent extremism and hatred in our societies.” At 9 pm tonight, for a minute, Bangladesh will be plunged into darkness as the power is switched off in tribute to the victims of the genocide during the liberation war. 

Lawyers for mining giant Adani told a Queensland court they do not know what confidential information – “if any” – about the Carmichael coal mine was obtained by environmental activist Ben Pennings, who is being sued by the company for breach of confidence. Prior to the hearing, Adani made an open offer to settle the case, drop its damages claim and walk away, but Pennings rejected the offer. 

Expensive iPhones, a three-storied home with a swimming pool, a “small helicopter” and a 10-day tour to the moon. That’s right, to the Moon. Hold on. There is more: Rs 1 crore for each household, a car worth Rs 20 lakh and a robot to help women with chores. These are some of the electoral sops offered by Thulam Saravanan, who is contesting as an independent candidate in the Madurai (South) constituency. Does he have the funds to implement them? No, but his aim is to create awareness among voters about false promises being made by political parties during elections. The antidote for the “Achhe Din” promise of 2014 is even better days. 

The Supreme Court has refused to stay the sale of electoral bonds scheduled between April 1-10, ahead of the assembly elections. But standing up for the freedom of speech, it has quashed an FIR against Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim for a Facebook post. The charge was ridiculous ― Mukhim had called for an end to violence against non-tribals, and a village tribal body had taken umbrage. However, it took eight months for this case, which should have been thrown out of court on sight, to reach this point. 

In a cruel joke, the trial in ‘fast-track’ court has begun five years after the murder of Akhlaq, the first victim of beef vigilantism, after charges were framed against the suspects on February 25 for the September 28, 2015 incident. The victim’s family could not appear.  

Parliament was adjourned yesterday, eight days earlier than scheduled. Of the 13 bills introduced in this session, none has been referred to a Parliamentary Committee in the Budget Session. In this Lok Sabha, so far, 11% of the introduced bills have been referred to a committee; this is a much lower rate than the 14th (60%), 15th (71%), and 16th (27%) Lok Sabhas. About 76% of the Budget was passed without discussion. Also, this is the longest period that the Lok Sabha has functioned without a deputy speaker.

The recent attack on two nuns from Kerala in Uttar Pradesh may become a setback to the BJP’s attempts to make inroads into the Christian vote banks in Kerala. The state CPI(M) and Congress took it up. Forums like the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council had expressed anxiety. Demonstrations were staged by prominent churches. The incident had upset BJP candidates, especially in Christian pockets. The BJP was trying to make inroads into the Christian community, which makes up 18% of the state’s population. Even the BJP’s national leaders have been constantly meeting church leaders, seeking support.

India’s foreign exchange reserves are at a record high, but the country should continue to worry about its currency and economy. India’s economic recovery could get bumpy if US treasury bond yields continue to rise. If global investors sell the rupee to shift investments to the US, its value will decline.

Daily wage workers suffered in the lockdown – and continue to struggle months later. Data from Lucknow shows that the mean monthly income for labour work fell 62%, from Rs 9,500 per month in pre-pandemic times to Rs 3,500 per month now.

A new and important study observes that fatality rates among older positive-testing Indian migrants was twice as high as in richer countries. Among younger migrants, it was even worse: over 1% of Covid-19 positive migrant men under the age of 49 died, an age group with negligible mortality in other countries. Also, fatality is significantly lower in southern states. The state of baseline health could explain the difference.

Columnist and author Anil Dharkar, former editor of Mid-Day and the Independent and the man behind Mumbai’s International Literature Festival and Literature Live!, has died in Mumbai. 

Pandemic tidal wave ahead

With 59,118 fresh cases, India has seen its biggest one-day spike since mid-October, and has had 1.18 crore total cases so far. A massive second wave of infections is emerging, as the virus pits itself against the vaccine rollout, reports The Washington Post, where experts say the “big tidal wave” is coming.

The Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, has been curtailed to just one month for the first time in its history, in view of a recent surge in Covid-19 cases. The occasion usually lasts around three-and-a-half months. Its last edition was held in Haridwar from January 14 to April 28 in 2010. The congregation on the banks of the Ganga will now be held April 1-30, with three ‘shahi snan’ (major bathing) dates on April 12, 14 and 27.

Genetic variation is very common in all viruses, including Covid-19. We do not need to worry about every variant, says Professor Rakesh Aggarwal, Director, Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER), Puducherry.

SC asks why judges are not being appointed

The Supreme Court yesterday asked the Modi government to clarify the status of 55 recommendations made by the Collegium for judicial appointments to various High Courts six months to nearly a year-and-a-half ago. The court asked the Attorney General to enquire with the Union Ministry of Law and Justice and report on April 8. The Bench handed him a chart containing the details of the 55 recommendations.

Ladakh unresolved, threat abated not dissipated

The Chinese military yesterday said that the situation in eastern Ladakh has “eased distinctly” following disengagement of troops from the Pangong Lake area, but gave no indication about a pullout along the Line of Actual Control. Despite the Indian Army pitching for faster disengagement in Hot Springs, Gogra, and Depsang, it is yet to happen.

But Army Chief General MM Naravane, while addressing the India Economic Conclave, said, “Though troops from both sides have disengaged and gone back, the threat has abated but not dissipated. Unless a substantial amount of de-escalation takes place and the troops that had come from multiple places and are currently within striking distance of the border go back, the threat remains.” His interaction at the media event, where he speaks on Pakistan, Kashmir, Quad and other national security issues is worth watching. And India figured in the Alaska meeting between the US and China, reports The Hindu.

The Long Cable

‘India is no longer a liberal democracy, or even an illiberal democracy’

James Manor is Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. Tanweer Alam of The India Cable asked him the one question which really matters now:

Tanweer Alam: From being feted as a vibrant democracy, India’s democratic backsliding and majoritarian authoritarianism are being adversely commented upon, globally. What do you make of this appraisal? As a long-term observer of Indian politics, what is the one thing that worries you the most? Conversely, is there hope for India’s democratic future? 

James Manor: In my view, India is no longer a liberal democracy, or even an illiberal democracy. Things have gone further than that. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pursuing an authoritarian project, especially vigorously since the re-election of his government in May 2019. He has sought to achieve top-down, one-man control over India’s politics and society, and has made great progress towards that goal.

He has pursued this on a wide range of fronts. Not one of these stands out as especially damaging ― we need to look at the full range. The numerous investigative agencies of the central government have been blatantly misused to intimidate independent voices and power centres that once had autonomy and resources. They have been used not only against Opposition political parties and their leaders, but also against civil society organisations (including a Nobel Prize winner, Amnesty International), universities, and very prominent business houses and their leaders. As a result, eminent business leaders have spoken of an atmosphere of fear and of being treated like pariahs. Modi has managed to raise vast funds for election campaigns ― so that at the 2019 election, his party had 18 times more money to spend than all other parties combined.

The Modi government has used carrots and sticks to extract gushing loyalty from numerous media outlets ― although some notable exceptions bravely maintain independent voices.  Independent journalists ― including very eminent editors ― have lost their jobs as the result of pressure on media executives, and some have been jailed and even murdered. The once fiercely independent Election Commission has been cowed. Efforts to intimidate the courts have made great headway, although some court decisions still vex Modi and his allies. Parliament now suffers from blatant dominance by the regime. The federal system has suffered grave damage from Modi’s effort to radically centralise powers and resources in the Prime Minister’s Office ― which dictates policies and actions to central government ministers and state governments. All of this is linked to an effort to polarise society between Hindus and minorities ― and Muslims have faced outrageous vilification and violence.  So-called ‘cow protection’ vigilantes have beaten and murdered huge numbers of Muslims. A pogrom against Muslims in Delhi in 2020 has been followed by efforts to blame Muslims ― the victims ― for the mayhem.

There are, however, two main reasons to believe that the authoritarian project may not succeed in the long run. First, it has been built on a frail edifice ― a personality cult that glorifies Modi, a hugely narcissistic leader. He seeks, with considerable success, to maximise power in his own hands ― personal rule. This, and the fawning praise that he gets from most of the intimidated media, have made him personally very popular. But the result is less a well institutionalised system than a cult dependent on one person. No second line of leadership has much substance.  So if he passes from the scene, the edifice may struggle to survive. It is notable here that his radical centralisation of power has weakened not only formerly independent institutions, but also the institutional strength of his own party, the BJP. It has been strengthened as an instrument for fighting elections, but it has been starved of power by the drive for one-man, top-down control.  It has been hollowed out, and once Modi moves on, it may not be able to sustain the authoritarian order.  

Second, the surge in anti-Muslim sentiment may not survive over time. Indians have long tended to shift their preoccupations from one of the many identities available to them to another, and then another ― often and with great fluidity.  They have not fixed firmly on their religious (or any other) identity.  They have also tended to throw out ruling parties at roughly 70% of national and state elections. That is a very high rejection rate by international standards. That raises serious doubts about the ability of the new order to ensure re-election ― if semi-free elections can survive.


Vaccine diplomacy questioned

The surge in Covid-19 infections has halted the Modi government’s diplomatic initiative, ‘Vaccine Maitri’, which was supposed to take the edge off Western criticism of India’s deteriorating human rights environment, an argument publicly made by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. His ministry’s website shows that the last commercial shipment was to Namibia on March 22 and the last dispatch of free vaccines was to Malawi on March 18. 

The UN-backed international vaccine alliance Gavi has publicly blamed India for walking back on its export commitments. “Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines to lower-income economies will face delays following a setback in securing export licences for further doses… produced by SII expected to be shipped in March and April,” it said in a statement. The UK says it has also not received half of the 10 lakh doses ordered from SII after getting the first lot of 50 lakh doses on March 5. Ongoing discussions between the WHO, the global vaccine alliance Gavi and Indian authorities, aimed at ensuring Covax shipments, continue to be prioritised.

Rural India loses income

CMIE data reveals that monthly household expenses in rural India had been on a declining trend since November 2019 but they suffered the biggest crash in April 2020 with a decline of 27% over March 2020.

(via: CEDA-CMIE Bulletin No 3: March 2021)

Loss of income and livelihood are among the top concerns for rural communities struggling to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new study conducted across 10 states. Conducted by the Indian School of Development Management and the NGO, IIMPACT, it is based on a survey conducted in over 4,800 household in over 900 villages in Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Jharkhand. “While only 17% could retain their job or primary source of income during the lockdown, 96% of households surveyed have not been able to build resilience for sustenance beyond four months. At least 15% of the households identified reverse migration as one of the key issues that are likely to disrupt the socio-economic fabric,” the study reports. Data also indicates that almost every third graduate from rural communities interviewed works as domestic help or daily wage labour.

Court lambasts Delhi police in riots case

A court in Delhi took the Delhi Police to task over non-maintenance of files in a case relating to the alleged burning and desecration of Madina Masjid during the Delhi riots in February 2020. Additional Sessions Judge Vinod Yadav said the case diaries hadn’t been maintained as per section 172 (diary of proceedings in investigation) of the Criminal Procedure Code. The court also noted that the statements of witnesses were probably recorded after the last date of hearing in the matter, which was registered more than a year ago. It also doubted whether the witness statements were recorded on the date mentioned by the investigating officer because while the statements appear to have been recorded on a computer, they bore his physical signature. 

Deep Dive

RSS recipe for UP

The Sangh Parivar has merged the registers of Mandal and Mandir to create a viable political block for itself in Uttar Pradesh. Avishek Jha looks at how the BJP has expanded its voter base in India’s largest state.

Prime Number: 9,849
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology informed the Lok Sabha that as many as 9,849 URLs have been blocked in 2020 under Section 69 of the IT Act, 2000. In 2015, the number was 500. 

Jail for deleting 1,200 Microsoft accounts

An Indian national who, after being fired by his company, accessed its server and deleted over 1,200 Microsoft user accounts, has been sentenced by a California court to two years in prison. Deepanshu Kher was arrested when he flew from India to the US on January 11, 2021, unaware of the outstanding warrant for his arrest. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Fifty years ago, on March 25, the genocide in East Pakistan began. The 1971: Genocide-Torture Archive and Museum in Khulna records this campaign of rape and massacre meticulously, without exaggeration or outrage. Prof Muntassir Mamoon, founder chairman of the museum, explains its significance.

  • In the wake of two professors resigning, apparently under political pressure, PEN America condemns the suppression of dissent in India and supports the academic community at Ashoka that continues to fight for free expression and scholarly inquiry. 

  • Electoral bonds must go, says Gautam Bhatia, as they violate the basic tenets of India’s democracy by withholding the right to know from citizens and voters.

  • Assam’s large tea worker community has always lacked a political voice. Arunabh Saikia asks if this could be changing now. 

Listen Up

Statuary warning

Prof Kajri Jain, Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Toronto, has been studying outsized statues for almost two decades and her latest book, Gods of Democracy examines this phenomenon and what it represents. She discusses the significance of monumental statuary with Sidharth Bhatia of The India Cable.

Watch Out

Lloyd on cricket

West Indian cricket legend Sir Clive Lloyd’s speech during Wednesday’s Tenth Tiger Pataudi Memorial Lecture, “could easily be compared to one of his trademark innings — minimal usage of footwork yet executed with supreme power and elegance.”

Over and Out

In Tamil Nadu, the Mahadanapuram railway station signboard was changed by railway officials after an article in a daily went viral, creating an uproar among Tamil activists. The Sanskrit ‘ha’ has now been replaced by the Tamil ‘ka’. The Mahadanapuram station board was changed for safety, but officials replaced the Tamil ‘ka’ with a Sanskrit ‘ha’. This didn’t go down well with locals and activists.

In Haryana, a motorcycle rally organised by BJP leader Virendra Singh melted away like mist when the riders learnt that there were farmers on the road ahead. They threw away their party flags, stripped off their BJP T-shirts and scattered. 

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Tuesday, on a device near you. Happy Holi, and if The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.