The India Cable: Ayodhya Mosque No Righting of Wrong, Lending Apps Drive Suicides

Plus: Profits rise, as does inequality, SCs/STs/OBCs can compete in 'general' category, British breakdancing champ is half Indian and why critics of pizza-eating farmers should eat pizza boxes instead

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
December 22, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Indian markets reacted to news of a new strain of Covid-19 in the UK with the worst dip in seven months, with indices falling 3%. The rupee also declined to a two-week low against the dollar. India’s overall joblessness rate has climbed significantly to close to 10% in the week ended 13 December, at least a 23-week high, reversing a trend where the unemployment rate was hovering largely between 6% and 8% for the last few months. 

The Indian rupee is likely to end 2020 as Asia’s worst performing currency, surpassing even minor South Asian currencies like the Pakistani and Sri Lankan rupee. Housing sales across seven major cities may fell 47% year-on-year to 1.38 lakh units this year on depressed demand because of the pandemic, according to property consultant Anarock.

Veteran Congress leader Motilal Vora passed away in Delhi on Monday, a day after he celebrated his 93rd birthday and close on the heels of Ahmed Patel, another top Congressman close to the Gandhi family. Vora, who had recovered from Covid-19 in October, was admitted to hospital after complaining of breathlessness on December 19. A journalist by profession, he worked with Navbharat Times of the Times of India group as its Bombay correspondent, then served with the paper in Nagpur and Raipur, and later with Nagpur Times.

The Karnataka High Court has stayed a state government order to drop 61 criminal cases against a posse of BJP lawmakers and functionaries, including ministers, apart from allies and political aides.

The Pakistan government on Monday granted permission for the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad, nearly six months after work at the site was stopped, apparently under pressure from radical Islamic groups. The Capital Development Authority issued a notification in Lahore on Monday, giving permission for the construction of the boundary wall for a Hindu cremation ground in sector H-9/2, Islamabad.

UN Women hailed Kerala as the lighthouse of the global South in women’s empowerment. On Monday, it entered into an agreement that recognised the state government’s Gender Park as South Asia’s hub for gender equality. A comparison of National Family Health Survey data and official economic data shows that richer states did have lower rates of child stunting, but increases in per capita income over the last five years were not necessarily correlated with reductions in child stunting.

The generation-old sport of breakdancing will be included in the 2024 Paris Olympics, as the organisers try to reach out to the youth. In India, its popularity rose, waned and passed in parallel with the career of Michael Jackson and yet, a connection remains. British-Indian B-Boy Kid Karam of Derby could represent the UK in Paris. British champion and grandson of a wrestler from Phagwara, Karam Singh represented his country at the world’s biggest ‘breaking’ event this year, Red Bull BC One at Salzburg.

Many Indian students booked to travel back home to be with friends and family in India for Christmas and New Year’s eve are among those affected by Monday’s suspension of all flights to and from the UK, where a new strain of Covid-19 has emerged. London and parts of the South are under Tier-4 restrictions, which prohibit all non-essential travel. This is one of the busiest travel periods on UK-India routes.

After a gap of over eight months, bars, beer and wine parlours and toddy shops in Kerala will reopen, bringing some seasonal cheer. 


Margins rise, economy dips

Corporate profits rose 15% to touch an all-time high in the September quarter as margins widened on softer input costs and better utilisation levels, the research arm of leading rating agency Crisil said. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda) touched an “all-time high” of Rs 1.60 lakh crore in the September quarter, as against Rs 1.02 lakh crore in the preceding June quarter, it said. The trend of company profits growing even as the economy contracts because of the pandemic has led to concerns that this illustrates the widening of inequalities.

In a dubious distinction, the BJP-led NDA government has achieved the highest loan write-offs between 2015 and 2019, more than three times the volume of bad loans written off during the previous Congress-led UPA regime, 2004-2014, as per an RTI reply. During the UPA’s 10-year rule, around Rs 2,20,328 crore was written off by various banks, and the figure shot up to Rs 7,94,354 crore during the NDA regime from 2015-2019, resulting in a corresponding reduction in banks’ non-performing assets.


SC has reservations about “communal reservation”

The Supreme Court has said that general category vacancies in public employment are open to all, including aspirants from reserved categories like other backward classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). A bench comprising Justices UU Lalit, Ravindra Bhat and Hrishikesh Roy said that disallowing meritorious candidates of reserved categories to migrate and be selected under the general category would amount to “communal reservation”. 

“The principle that candidates belonging to any of the vertical reservation categories are entitled to be selected in ‘Open or General Category’ is well settled. It is also well accepted that if such candidates belonging to reserved categories are entitled to be selected on the basis of their own merit, their selection cannot be counted against the quota reserved for the categories for vertical reservation that they belong to,” said Justice Lalit, who wrote the judgement for himself and Justice Roy. Justice Bhat, who wrote a separate concurring judgment, said, “The open category is not a ‘quota’, but is rather available to all women and men alike.”


Protesting farmers wield YouTube, and have their own library

A day after Facebook temporarily shut down a page on the ongoing farmers’ agitation against the Modi government’s new farm laws, the protesters said social media was crucial for their movement as it allowed them to tell the “truth in our own words”. Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster will join the agitating farmers in banging thalis (steel plates) during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ speech on December 27. Reacting to the farm laws enforced by the BJP-led Central government, poets have taken up the pen like they did during the now-forgotten Left movement in Punjab, to castigate the Centre and inspire resistance. A new collection is online at punjabi-kavita.com.

Students in solidarity with protesting farmers at Tikri Border have set up a library where protesters can read and discuss. You can contribute literature at the protest site, at: Shaheed Bhagat Singh library at Tikri border, Pillar No 783. 

Courtesy: Kawalpreet Kaur

Farmer leaders said they are always ready for dialogue as long as the government offers a “concrete solution”, but there is nothing new in the Centre’s latest letter to them seeking a date for the next round of talks. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait said the government, in its letter, mentioned that it wants to hold talks about its earlier proposal of amendments in the new agri laws. The sixth round of talks on December 9 was cancelled.


Russia’s engagement with Pakistan independent of India ties

Russia has said that India should not be worried about its relationship with Pakistan but noted that Moscow is committed to developing ties with Islamabad as it is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Deputy Chief of the Russian mission Roman Babushkin said Russia’s ties with Pakistan are “independent” in nature and that his government is mindful of respecting sensitivities of other countries. Pakistan and Russia have been holding counterterrorism drills for the last few years. The two sides are also attempting to expand ties in the domain of trade and have finalised a gas pipeline project.


Gehlot urges Centre to talk about vaccine plan

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has said that the central government should make a clear announcement about providing free Covid-19 vaccine to all citizens. He said that providing information at the right time would remove confusion among the public about the price and availability of the vaccine.


Comparing anti-conversion laws across states

Given the disaster that the illegal anti-conversion law in UP is proving to be, it is useful to compare the provisions of different state laws that are currently in place against religious conversion. Nine states have enacted ‘freedom of religion’ legislation – as these laws are oxymoronically called – to restrict conversions supposedly carried out by force, fraud, or inducements: Odisha (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006),  Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), Jharkhand (2017), Uttarakhand (2018), and Uttar Pradesh (2020). Like UP, Himachal Pradesh in 2019 and Uttarakhand have decided to declare a marriage null and void if it involves conversion ‘by force or inducement’. But the Himachal high court in 2012 had struck down provisions of the state’s law that required a person converting his or her religion to inform the authorities beforehand. The judgment, authored by Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired from the Supreme Court this year, said:

“A man's mind is the impregnable fortress in which he thinks and there can be no invasion of his right of thought unless the person is expressing or propagating his thoughts in such a manner that it will cause public disorder or affect the unity or sovereignty of the country. 

“Why should any human being be asked to disclose what is his religion? Why should a human being be asked to inform the authorities that he is changing his belief? What right does the State have to direct the convertee to give notice in advance to the District Magistrate about changing his rebellious thought?”

Despite this, the UP law has brought in a similar provision. 

Meanwhile, the Calcutta High Court has stated that if a woman decides to marry and convert, there can be “no interference in the matter”. Earlier this year, a division bench of the Allahabad HC said much the same thing.


The Long Cable

Ayodhya: India’s Muslims affirm rights the state and judiciary failed to do

Siddharth Varadarajan

All those who saw the Supreme Court's Ayodhya verdict in August 2019 as perverse and unjust could be forgiven for greeting the design of the new mosque to be built 25 kilometres away from the site where the Babri Masjid once stood with mixed feelings and emotions. Does this mean we are burying the idea of justice, and locking in injustice, forever?

Architect’s drawing of the new mosque-cum-hospital complex in Ayodhya

The Babri mosque was built on Babur’s orders in 1528 and demolished in 1992 – on the orders of leaders of the various Hindutva groups agitating for a Ram temple. The Supreme Court accepted that the demolition was a grave crime yet handed over the disputed land to those whose links with the demolishers was no secret. The Modi government, which had pushed for a speedy verdict, compounded this astonishing injustice by ensuring that the ‘non-government’ trust which will oversee the construction of a Ram temple at the site included individuals who, at the time, had been charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation with conspiracy to demolish the mosque. That these Hindutva leaders and others like them were all subsequently acquitted by a special court was the coup de grace, which completed the circle of injustice.

Earlier this week, blueprints for the new mosque-cum-hospital complex – to be built on land that the Supreme Court shame-facedly ordered given to the Muslim plaintiffs as compensation for a verdict it knew was illogical – were shown to the media. Bold and modern, the design is visually stunning. But what is truly extraordinary is that the new five acre complex in Dhannipur village, Faizabad district, will house a hospital and library, and that the hospital will be larger than the mosque. I only hope the trustees make sure the new complex's foundation stone is laid by someone who truly represents India's secular, democratic ethos and civilisational values and not by the current prime minister of India or chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

When the Supreme Court announced its shocking verdict earlier this year, many Musims saw the award of five acres as a slap in their collective face. Some favoured leaving the land unclaimed, while others said an attempt should be made to make the best of a bad deal and use the land in such a way that India’s Muslims could affirm their rights and their humanity – something the government and judiciary had failed to do. The new complex appears to be an attempt to do precisely that. When it is built, it will provide a great contrast to the government backed Sangh parivar project in Ayodhya that may be formally dedicated to Ram but is actually an integral part of a profane political project and will always remain so. The Sangh’s temple will be a monument to intolerance, exclusion and injustice. However, the new mosque-cum-hospital complex can be a place of sanctuary for all. Muslims can pray if they want while the sick of Uttar Pradesh can have a place to get treatment and children will be able to study. If India’s ruling establishment threw the flag of humanity in the mud, the country’s Muslims have picked it up and held it aloft. 

What the Supreme Court decided cannot be undone. It is a decision that this generation of Indians, and perhaps future ones, will have to live with, for better or worse. But the struggle for principles has to continue no matter what is built in Ayodhya and Dhannipur. Indeed, the quest for justice has to go on till all those involved in the conspiracy to demolish the Babri Masjid are punished.

At stake in Ayodhya was not the fate of bricks and mortar but of key principles which underwrite our existence as a country and people, the sanctity of the Constitution, the rule of law. Those principles suffered a body blow on December 6, 1992, then again on November 9, 2019 and again when Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and again when the Uttar Pradesh governor signed into law an ordinance on religious conversions that targets inter-faith marriage. 

Against this backdrop, no one should make the mistake of seeing the new mosque-cum-hospital complex as the righting of a wrong. It is a symbol of the fortitude of those who refuse to surrender their aspirations and rights and sense of belonging and humanity despite relentless pressure to do precisely that.


Anti-CAA protests to resume online

Popular singer-composer and social activist Zubeen Garg used the concluding function of the 8th North East Festival 2020 at Guwahati on Sunday night to announce that he has not forgotten about the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and that the protest against the law will be virtual this time. After his first song, Zubeen brought up the law that is going to be a dominant issue for the 2021 Assembly polls.


Urban poor hit hardest by unemployment

The urban poor faced the brunt of job losses during the pandemic and saw their incomes plunge most steeply. Those without a professional degree fared the worst. This means the overwhelming majority of Indians. Among those who earn less than Rs 20,000 a month, 11% of those without a professional university degree reported losing their jobs. There appears to be no end in sight, and no thinking on how to address the problem demographically. 

Despite announcements of over Rs 20 lakh crore in fiscal packages, total expenditure till October this year increased by only Rs 6,550 crore over the same period last year. In fact, as a proportion of its initial Budget Estimate, actual expenditure is lower by five percentage points than the same period last year, write Avani Kapur and Sharad Pandey. 


Deep Dive

Zoom in

Zoom Chief Operating Officer Aparna Bawa says that she and fellow Zoom executives were so busy earlier this year that they had to take turns to sleep. A look at the people behind the screen in the virtual meeting industry. 


Lending apps turn suicide pills

Tormented by representatives of illegal money lending app companies from which they took loans at exorbitant rates, at least three people have committed suicide recently in Telangana. More people, who were bearing the torture in silence till now, are approaching the police for help. Some of these victims lost their jobs when the mishandled lockdown ravaged the economy. P Sunil, 29, hanged himself in his flat at Kismatpur in Hyderabad last Wednesday. 

A software engineer with a private company in the IT hub of Madhapur, Sunil had been jobless for months. Mounting debts and family responsibilities forced him to turn to online apps for instant loans. Sunil took about Rs 2 lakh from various apps he had installed on his phone. As he failed to repay the amount, representatives of the app companies started to threaten him and even blackmailed him, saying they would shame him publicly via social media platforms like WhatsApp. Subsequently, Sunil’s father and wife received calls from these companies declaring him a defaulter and threatened them, too. When he learned of the abuse faced by his family, Sunil took the extreme step. 

Kirni Mounika, 28, an Agriculture Extension Officer in Siddipet district also took her life last week after facing humiliation. Sravan Yadav, 23, a farmer from Narsapur, ended his life for the same reason.


Another Indian-American joins Biden government

US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday named Indian American Bharat Ramamurti as one of the three new members of the National Economic Council that coordinates domestic and international economic policymaking for the administration. Ramamurti will be Deputy Director of NEC for Financial Reform and Consumer Protection. Previously, he was the top economic adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren during her 2020 presidential campaign and senior counsel for banking and economic policy in her Senate office. Born in Massachusetts, Ramamurti is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School.


Bonds shackle democracy

Electoral bonds are undemocratic, have killed transparency and legitimised crony capitalism, says a former Chief Election Commissioner, but the Supreme Court can’t find the time to hear the case questioning their legitimacy, even after three years and the terms of three Chief Justices of India. 


Modi wrote to Nawaz Sharif

Narendra Modi had marked Christmas in 2015 with a sudden Go To Pakistan trip, to attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s house. Now, following the death of Sharif’s mother Begum Shamim Akhtar, Modi has written him a condolence letter. According to reports, the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan sent the letter to his daughter Maryam Nawaz on December 11. Sharif is in London. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss


Listen Up

On the world of electoral politics and how the pandemic has changed it, listen to Rukmini S talk to PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan for some fascinating insights.


Watch Out

Jayati Ghosh shows how Covid-19 has led to a dramatic decline in economic activity and how incompetent state responses have intensified the socio-economic and political inequalities that were hidden under the surface until now, in India as well as other developing countries.


Cooking it up

Cancer and stem cell researcher and author Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee is sharing his recipes on Twitter. The deal is that if you use them, you have to donate $20 to a US food bank. It’s an effort to help the poor get through one of the bleakest winters in living memory. 

In Delhi, the farmers camped on the border were attacked by friends of the BJP for cooking pizzas in their field kitchens. Here’s the takedown ― since every ingredient of a pizza is made by farmers, don’t eat it. Eat the box instead. It’s made in a factory.  


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.