The India Cable: Armies Disengaging in Ladakh, UP Police Engage Mass Surveillance Snoop

Plus: More FIRs filed against climate activists, Kapil Mishra’s hate network infiltrated, Supreme Court warns WhatsApp, Twitter-govt spat can spark global debate, and BJP won’t be allowed in Lanka

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
February 16, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In Ladakh, the disengagement process between Indian and Chinese troops continues. 

(Courtesy: Indian Army)

In Delhi, the ‘toolkit’ drama also continues as two more ‘conspirators’ against the state are identified. Along with Disha Ravi, they edited a Google document which people from all over the world have also edited. The Delhi Police are pursuing a tangential course, implicating people associated with the document because that is about all they can do, and spinning a yarn out of their social media communications. They cannot afford to draw attention to the document itself, because there appears to be nothing criminal there. 

Satellite imagery data of the land and territorial waters of India, of a resolution of one metre and below, hitherto reserved for military and strategic applications, has been opened up to the private sector. IT companies can now produce much more accurate applications for all services which use geospatial data, from doorstep pizza delivery to measuring the rate of glacier attrition, which would help predict disasters like the recent one in Uttarakhand. 

The Supreme Court was initially cool to pleas drawing its attention to WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, under which it could share user data with Facebook. But now, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde finds it a fit subject for examination, since the privacy rights of citizens are at stake. WhatsApp must file an affidavit within four weeks committing that it would not share user data. In effect, it has been asked to roll back its policy in no uncertain terms: “People value their privacy more than your money.”  

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh has said that a BJP IT cell head and 12 influencers were involved in tweets supporting the Centre. He had ordered an inquiry into the concerted set of tweets criticising farmers, and the possible role of the BJP IT cell.

Amid the row following the resignation of Uttarakhand state cricket team coach Wasim Jaffer, after which an office-bearer of the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand accused him of “communal bias”, Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat on Monday ordered an inquiry into the matter. 

Six out of seven posts at the National Commission for Minorities are lying vacant. The Delhi High Court has sought a status report from the Central government. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday gave emergency use clearance to two versions of the Oxford-AstraZenecaCovid-19 vaccine, which will be rolled out globally through COVAX. Two-thirds of vaccines exported from India have been sold commercially abroad, i.e are not a part of ‘vaccine diplomacy’. 

Rashmi Samant is the first Indian woman president of the Oxford University Student Union, having won a landslide on a manifesto promising syllabus decolonisation and decarbonising the institution. Samant is a graduate student reading for an MSc in energy systems with a focus on sustainability at Linacre College. 


Hindutva toolkit exposed

A two-month-long investigation conducted by Meghnad S and Shambhavi Thakur, infiltrating the Telegram networks of execrable BJP leader Kapil Mishra, provides a look into a toolkit designed to whip up hate and keep it simmering 24x7. Mishra is the very leader whose inflammatory and controversial statements, delivered just before the outbreak of violence in Delhi last year, were never investigated by the police.


Government by paranoia

Toolkit mania has not ended with the remand of Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old climate activist from Bengaluru who has been arrested in connection with the Greta Thunberg toolkit case, and has asked the Delhi court what was wrong about supporting farmers. Shantanu Muluk and lawyer-activist Nikita Jacob are also cited as accused by the Delhi Police in connection with the Google document that Greta Thunberg had posted. Shantanu and Nikita have sought transit anticipatory bail. Delhi Police has accused Nikita, Shantanu and Disha of creating the toolkit document “to tarnish India’s image”. 

The cost of shining up India’s image by harassing young climate activists will be obvious soon enough. But mystifyingly, Twitter notified Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij that it did not find that his obnoxious tweet – calling for “anti-nationals” like Disha Ravi to be “destroyed from the roots” – required removal under its rules. Also, the actions of the police will definitely become material to legal proceedings.

Several hundred people including farmers’ leaders, politicians and ordinary citizens protested in Bengaluru in support of Disha Ravi. Most newspapers have written editorials criticising the Delhi Police, which reports directly to Union Home Minister Amit Shah: Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Times of India, The Telegraph, Deccan Herald, New Indian Express, The Tribune and The Indian Express.  


Fine-tuning reservation

The Justice Rohini Commission, set up to look into the politically sensitive question of redistribution of the 27% quota for Other Backward Castes (OBC), is to begin consultations next month with states on a four-category formula, says a report. Formed on October 2, 2017, it is learnt to have drawn up a proposal to divide the 2,633 OBC castes in the Central List into four subcategories. The categories numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 will split 27% of the OBC quota reservation into 2, 6, 9 and 10%, respectively. The RSS has always frowned on reservation and its chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reconsidering reservation before the Bihar polls in 2015 is said to have cost the BJP the election, yet he revisited it in 2019. The RSS-BJP railed against sub-quotas when UPA-2 proposed it in 2011, and the plan was shelved.


The Long Cable

Twitter-government spat can catalyse global debate about jurisdiction, regulation

MK Venu and Maya Mirchandani

The clash between the Indian government and Twitter has once again exposed contradictions and double standards on both sides. The Indian government has threatened to take legal action against Twitter, accusing it of bias in its resistance to take down accounts that New Delhi claims supported the farmers’ protests in India. IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad likened the events at the Red Fort on January 26 to the violent assault on Capitol Hill by an armed mob just weeks earlier. 

As America’s incoming President Joe Biden declared it an insurrection against democracy, Twitter suspended several handles, including sitting president Donald Trump’s, for posting videos and comments sharing support for the mob engaged in the assault, and the conspiratorial rationale behind it, and violating its user guidelines by having virtually incited acts of real-world violence. In India, Twitter has argued that it blocked many accounts on the government’s request but refused to block several others that were consistent with the company’s free speech policies, though intensely critical of the Modi government’s handling of the farmers’ protests. 

Here lies the heart of the matter that has vexed relations between governments and social media platforms. As American companies, platforms like Twitter or Facebook have often taken cover under the First Amendment of the US Constitution ― the broad umbrella that ensures absolute protection for speech, unlike India’s Article 19(2), which imposes reasonable restrictions on speech that may incite violence or discriminate against individuals or groups based on protected characteristics such as faith, caste or gender, or speech that is deemed to be against the spirit of unity and integrity of the country. In the former, discriminatory speech is self-evident, while the latter restrictions have been misused and abused time and again by successive governments to silence critics. 

This time is no exception. But in 2021, Twitter is not like supine Indian media. And this clash of jurisdictions was only to be expected. Now, Ravishankar Prasad has gone to the extent of saying in Parliament that he will propose amendments to the Indian law to rein in social media platforms. But in Biden’s Presidency, this could also mean greater US involvement in a larger dispute over jurisdiction which US companies operate under globally. 

This is not the first time BJP lawmakers have tried to exert control over social media platforms, even though in the Indian context both Twitter and Facebook have been slippery when it comes to reining in right wing hate speech spread by the BJP’s infamous IT Cell and its army of supporters and paid trolls. Before the 2019 election BJP MP Anurag Thakur summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to answer charges of what the BJP government claimed then was a ‘liberal’ bias that drowns out right wing voices.

With about 350 million active users globally ― a fraction of Facebook’s base ― why is the Indian government repeatedly rattled by Twitter? The answer lies not in the numbers, but in politics. For its size, Twitter punches well above its weight. Unlike its contemporaries, Twitter’s significantly smaller user base seems much more engaged on issues that dominate the news cycle in a public space. Global leaders, presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and strongmen alike engage directly with users, and sometimes with each other too via tweets, bypassing the entire ecosystem of official communications, press conferences and statements in the mass news media. They make news and often set the agenda for nightly debates on television in India in under 280 characters every day. Twitter’s ability to influence news agendas and mobilize support or dissent (whichever way you look at it), in spite of its size,  seems formidable globally.

Frankly, so far neither Twitter nor Facebook have evolved standard policies, or even an adequate infrastructure, to quickly identify content which can suddenly generate hate and lead to individual or mob violence. The manner in which social media platforms hurried to ban Donald Trump after the Capitol Hill violence exposed their fickle behaviour. French President Macron said the same social media platforms which helped “Trump be so efficient” suddenly “cut off the mike” after it was clear that he had lost power. Macron’s statement struck at the heart of platform double standards, governed not just by their sometimes malleable guidelines, but by business compulsions, especially in countries which offer big markets and revenues.

The Government of India’s double standards are also on display, given its past collaborations with social media platforms when it suited them. Internal communications of senior Facebook officials exposed in recent years clearly showed that the platform had helped the BJP regularly in running ideologically motivated election campaigns bordering on hate. Provocative content of BJP leaders in India was allowed to circulate without censure, because of business interests. Such actions and past precedents are conveniently sidelined or ignored by the Modi government and its ministers as they wage a daily battle of perception with regard to social media bias. 

Likening the Capitol Hill violence to events in Red Fort is like comparing apples and oranges. In America, the FBI has identified right wing extremism and domestic terrorism as the single biggest national security threat in 2021 and is gathering evidence of a concerted attempt to mobilise a mob towards just one goal ― of overthrowing an election and challenging the US Constitution. In India’s case, the protests are about the impact new agricultural laws will have on the livelihoods of farmers, who have for the most part  protested spontaneously and peacefully across the country since last November, and have expressed no intention of illegally forcing “regime change.”

Yet, the establishment’s attack on Twitter at a time when it is bearing down heavily on other domestic media organisations solidifies the impression that the government wants a firmer and harsher grip on the overall narrative after the prolonged farmers’ protests, which have taken on a life of their own, especially after the Twitter interventions of celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. The pressure on the Indian government to reclaim its position was evident in the Ministry of External Affairs’ unprecedented official reaction to celebrities, which confirmed that the government knows well that wars waged on Twitter have to be won on Twitter. It even supplied its own ‘toolkit’ of hashtags like #Indiaagainstpropaganda to do so.

Officially, the Indian government’s main objection against Twitter was about the virality with which provocative hashtags and automated bots suggesting “genocide against farmers” spread across the platform. Though this concern is legitimate and the government may have been justified in raising it with Twitter, what has really worried PM Modi is the genuine global support for protesting farmers, from celebrities and legislators from across the Western world. A case against Twitter, which Ravi Shanker Prasad proposes, will no doubt add to the chilling effect being created in the broader media space. “Will Twitter officials in India go to jail,” is a question many were asking, when the government announced it would file a case against the platform in India.

One doesn’t know how the current face-off between the Modi government and Twitter will resolve the clash of legal jurisdictions. After all, India is not China and cannot afford to ban social platforms ― especially those which the Prime Minister himself uses with great efficiency and eagerness. 

Globally, governments are seeking much stronger regulation of social media platforms. Recent communications from the European Union to President Biden seeking common rules to rein in the power of Big Tech is evidence that under a new Democrat government in America, these conversations will progress. The political class wants to regulate Big Tech but is also open to doing deals with them to maintain some control over citizens. This interaction  will become more complex in future as the influence of Big Tech grows by leaps and bounds. 

In this context, a serious legal dispute between the Indian government and Twitter on the issue of free speech could well become the catalyst around which such regulations can be debated. The outcome of this spat will likely set a benchmark on how clashing legal jurisdictions among democracies can coexist with the right of citizens to criticize, oppose and dissent without necessarily provoking hate or violence. This exercise will be complex and tricky, and could determine India’s democratic credentials under this regime.

Maya Mirchandani is Assistant Professor, Media Studies, Ashoka University and Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation


Government takes over Delhi Gymkhana Club

The government of India has taken over the prestigious Delhi Gymkhana Club, one of the oldest clubs in the country, established in July 1913, and appointed Manmohan Juneja as the Administrator/OSD from the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT). Over 100 policemen are reported to have entered the Club on Monday afternoon. NCLAT said that the Delhi Gymkhana Club, “by restricting membership to a select few and conferring benefits on chosen members, is perpetuating apartheid in violation of Constitutional goals of social justice and equality.” Funny, but we’ve always known that clubs are exclusivist. They’re not exactly like the Youth Hostel movement. But then, this club is right by the Prime Minister’s residence and is built on prime property in the capital.


Prime Number: 100
For weeks, people have been breathlessly speculating about which city would first breach the Rs 100 per litre for petrol mark. Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan has gone and done it now. The bulk of the price of petrol constitutes taxes, invariably Central taxes. Several cities in India have seen the price of petrol cross Rs 90. In Kolkata, a litre of petrol costs Rs 90.25. Other cities above the Rs 90 mark are Bengaluru (Rs 91.97), Hyderabad (Rs 92.53), Patna (Rs 91.67), in Jaipur (Rs 95.51) and Thiruvananthapuram (Rs 90.87).

Deep Dive

A new research paper disproves the two commonest critiques of caste-based reservation policies in government hiring and education: that they do not benefit the target group, and that any benefits are unevenly distributed within the target group. Affirmative action is associated with small increases in educational attainment and government employment among eligible age cohorts, though the increases in government employment may be a result of other social and political trends. These benefits extend even to poorer OBCs (though not the very poorest), and increase the chances of social contact between uneducated OBCs and government officials.


‘Oomuph’ launches mass surveillance in UP 

The Uttar Pradesh Police on Saturday had said that it has hired a company to “keep an eye” on people’s internet search data to monitor those looking up smut. A new team called the ‘UP Women Powerline 1090’ has been set up to curb crimes against women. Additional Director General of Police Neera Rawat said that a company improbably named ‘Oomuph’ has been hired to alert its analytics team about searches for pornography. 

Sflc.in has filed an RTI application withUP Police seeking details of mass surveillance techniques used, and budgets deployed.


No BJP in Sri Lanka, there’s a law against it

Sri Lanka’s Election Commission Chairman Nimal Punchihewa on Monday shot down reports of India’s ruling BJP planning to set up a political unit in the island nation, saying the country’s electoral law does not permit such an arrangement. Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb had said that Amit Shah had told party leaders that the BJP would establish rule in regional countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal as part of the ‘Aatmanirbhar South Asia’ initiative. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Why has Twitter not permanently suspended large numbers of abusive Hindutva handles, including those of prominent BJP political figures, given that they could do the same to Donald Trump and White supremacists in the US, asks Rohit Chopra.

  • In Foreign Policy, Sumit Ganguly argues that Modi spent India’s soft power and got little in return. The prime minister has decided that international criticism is a price worth paying for pursuing his domestic agenda, but he shouldn’t be so sure.

  • The role of popular media in furthering the politics of the day cannot possibly be underestimated, says Robin Jeffrey as he analyses the role that technology has played in Indian elections historically and explores the potential of new digital media powered by 4G enabled phones in elections today.

  • Around this time last year, it was heartwarming to see young Indians across the nation reading the Preamble to the Constitution out loud as part of their protests against India’s new citizenship law. Universities must do more to ‘democratize’ learning, so that constitutionalism can be put into practice, argues Deepanshu Mohan. 

  • The government has launched a sharp assault on press freedom by filing draconian cases against publications that question its decisions, even as its supporters threaten outlets and individual reporters, but independent media is determined to resist, writes Kavitha Iyer.


Listen up

India says that it will conclude the disengagement plan with China within a week. China has started clearing assets from Finger 4 on the north bank of Pangong Tso. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) discusses at The Hindu’s podcast if the disengagement helps or hurts India’s long-term security interests


Watch Out

We have had four days of exciting Test cricket and India versus England is thrilling. But nothing can match the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry which we do not see anymore. Do hear  Ram Guha talking to Osman Samiuddin at ThinkFest Pakistan, discussing India, Pakistan, the game and more.


Tweet, repeat ― and repeat


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