The India Cable: Badal Returns Padma Award, Chinese Sugar Sweetens Swadeshi Honey

Plus: Farmers dig in, Chinese planned clash, folly of bullying cartoonists, vaccine tourism, BoJo for Republic Day, Covid culls Bhopal gas tragedy survivors, Mahashay of spices leaves the set for ever

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 3, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

This afternoon, former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal returned his Padma Vibhushan award in protest against the “betrayal” of farmers by the government, and became the latest member of the illustrious ‘award wapasi gang’. The rejection is deeply embarrassing for the government, and for Narendra Modi in particular as he nominated Badal for the award in 2015, comparing the Akali patriarch to Mandela. And then in 2019, before filing his nomination papers in Varanasi, Modi had touched the feet of the nonagenarian leader, who had travelled there to show his support. After that spectacle for the benefit of the media, the Prime Minister had greeted supporters from other states less demonstratively. 

Parkash Singh Badal (Photo: Wikimedia)

RN Ravi, Nagaland governor and the Centre’s interlocutor on Naga issues, has got into more trouble. Close on the heels of condemnation of his remarks by the Isak Muivah-led National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) and the Naga Students’ Federation, the Naga Hoho, an apex tribal body, has accused the governor of making an abusive statement by glorifying the controversial Naga Peoples’ Convention (NPC) for the creation of Nagaland state.

The government continues to take appearance more seriously than reality. It is asking Wikipedia to take down a map that shows Aksai Chin as a part of China, even though Chinese forces have moved well west of that onto the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, and have been ensconced there for more than 30 weeks. Chinese troops have been carrying out training in the mountains of Tibet as the PLA tries to get its soldiers acclimatised to the region’s extreme conditions amid the protracted border dispute. These exercises have been highlighted by Chinese state media, in a message to its domestic audience about being prepared to hold on through the harsh winter in eastern Ladakh.

Caste-based names of localities in Maharashtra will be changed, the state government has decided. Names like Mahar-wada, Bouddh-wada, Mang-wada, Dhor-vasti, Brahman-wada, Mali-galli are commonplace, but they are unbecoming in a progressive state like Maharashtra, it said. 

The Centre for Science and Environment finds that honey is the world’s most adulterated food. Dabur and Patanjali have questioned the green organisation’s claim that the honey they sell is adulterated with sugar syrup, saying that it seems to be motivated and aimed at maligning their brands. Patanjali also sees a foreign conspiracy.

There are voices expressing doubt within the BJP about the Modi government’s method of dealing with the farmers’ agitation against the three farm laws, while those in favour hark back to the Shaheen Bagh protests to claim that it’ll work out. But a comparison of the protests against CAA and the farm laws demonstrates the limits of Hindutva: suppressing the protests of Sikhs and farmers is nowhere as simple as it was to stamp out the disquiet of Muslims on the CAA.

Two adults in a live-in relationship have the right to cohabit peacefully, the Allahabad High Court has observed while directing the SSP of Farrukhabad to provide security to a couple that lives together and has been facing harassment from their family members. The Ministry of Home Affairs has ranked police stations in India. One in UP makes it to the eighth place, while another in Manipur’s Thoubal district makes it to numero uno.

Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, 98, of MDH spices and Mahashian Di Hatti fame, died this morning. He is a familiar face because of his advertisements, which he fronted himself. His father set up a small shop in Sialkot in undivided India in 1919, and Gulati built a Rs 1,500 crore business empire from there. 

Farmers sans frontiers

Farmers who have virtually encircled the capital’s borders, giving the Modi government’s PR machine a tough time, are now insisting that a special session of Parliament be called to repeal the three farm laws passed in very controversial conditions, by a voice vote, in the last session. Farmers are gathering all kinds of support, with the Bar Council of Delhi writing to the PM to withdraw the laws, transporters threatening to go on an all-India strike and stall the movement of essential goods and the Delhi Teachers’ Association expressing solidarity. UK-based global Sikh charity body Khalsa Aid has volunteered to provide free food and essential supplies to farmers agitating at Singhu and Tikri borders of the national capital. 

UP farmers say they are planning to keep the siege going for weeks and months if necessary, and will send a fresh batch of 100 protesters every day. Haryana farmers say they intend to blockade all exit and entry points to Delhi. 

Farmers are set to hold another round of talks with the Centre today. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh met the Home Minister prior to that, and requested him to listen to the farmers with an open mind. Which means, basically, that nothing has been achieved. The previous round of talks failed because farmer unions rejected the ploy of forming a committee and demanded that the laws be scrapped straightaway.

Dushyant Chautala’s JJP is feeling the heat of the farmers’ protests and almost all of its MLAs have supported the agitation. JJP, which has a largely agrarian support base in Haryana, is a crucial ally of the BJP, propping up Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s government in the state.

Chinese checkers

There is little hope for an early resolution of the border crisis in Ladakh, going by the interview of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar in The Hindu. Referring to the Sumdorong Chu crisis (see this interview with the general who handled it) which lasted from 1986 to 1995, the minister says that “there are complicated issues [that] will take time and I will go for what is my interest and my bottom line”. He doesn’t explicitly deny reports that the Chinese had taken over territory and stopped Indian patrols in Depsang and north of Pangong, arguing that “the situation on the ground is far more complicated than what you [the interviewer, Suhasini Haidar] are suggesting”. A commission created by the US Congress has found evidence suggesting the Chinese had planned the Galwan clashes, factoring in potential casualties.

The government’s strategy of stonewalling and obfuscation, confusion, and unquestioning control over the narrative, which had succeeded spectacularly against Pakistan during the Balakot crisis, has had mixed results in the Chinese border incursions in Ladakh. 

Vaccine tourism

November was the cruellest Covid month so far in the capital, and the situation could get worse if care is not exercised. Meanwhile, travel agents have started receiving enquiries from Indians who want to fly to the UK as soon as possible in pursuit of the Covid-19 vaccine that was approved on Wednesday by the British government, and which may be rolled out next week. The results of the Phase-3 trial of indigenously developed coronavirus vaccine candidate Covaxin will be available only in November 2021, top officials of ICMR-NICED in Kolkata have said. 

Running with the herd 

After Prime Minister Modi’s promise of universal vaccination and the BJP’s poll promises of free vaccines for all, ‘herd immunity’ is being talked up again. This has serious implications for a country of India’s size and population density, and the scale of the pandemic here. India remains the worst affected country in the world after the United States.

In a swift turnaround, the Health Ministry has said that the government had never spoken of vaccinating everyone. Now, it is excited about a ‘smart vaccination’ programme, which will target specific individuals to break chains of transmission. This is obviously a subterfuge to bridge the yawning gap between vaccine availability and population size, and practitioners are sceptical about its efficacy. Citizens would be, too, having encountered dubious claims of rampant smartness before, as in the smart cities initiative. The Central Board of Secondary Education is more confident than the herd, though. It has decreed that the board exams for 2021 will be written, and not online. 

Lights, camera, interrogation

A landmark order passed by the Supreme Court holds that a person has the right to complain about human rights violations by investigating agencies like the police, the CBI, the National Investigation Agency and the Enforcement Directorate, and has the right to get a copy of CCTV footage of their interrogation. 

They can make submissions to the National or state Human Rights Commissions, a human rights court or superintendent of police, or any other authority empowered to take cognizance of an offence. The CCTV footage is to be preserved for a minimum time period, which shall not be less than six months. The three-judge Bench mandated that CCTV systems installed in every police station in the country “must be equipped with night vision and must necessarily consist of audio as well as video footage.”

New law against conversions in UP, and an arrest

The Uttar Pradesh Police made its first arrest — a 21-year-old Muslim man — under the newly-implemented anti-conversion law that criminalises change of faith for marriage, effectively making inter-faith unions impossible. The arrested youth had eloped with a Hindu woman last year and been accused of kidnapping by the girl’s family before the matter was “settled”. She went on to marry another man but the police say her former paramour is still hell bent on not just marrying her but also converting her to Islam. The robustness of this charge will be tested in court but no one is holding their breath. Next on the cards is the scrapping of an incentive for marrying outside the barriers of caste and faith. An Intercaste and Interfaith Marriage Incentive Scheme was brought into effect in 1976 by the national integration department of the then UP government. Such a marriage is now a crime, if not done to the satisfaction of the district magistrate.

The Long Cable

Bullying cartoonists a hallmark of dictatorship, not democracy

Sushant Singh

In the famous and very dramatic climax scene of The Great Dictator, when the two characters played by Charlie Chaplin merge somewhat into one, the Jewish barber delivers a rousing speech: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.” 

It was kindness and gentleness that was needed on Tuesday, when Attorney General KK Venugopal gave his sanction to initiate contempt proceedings against comic artist Rachita Taneja, creator of the social media webcomic ‘Sanitary Panels’. The sanction was granted for her webcomic on the Supreme Court’s decision to grant bail to Arnab Goswami in an abetment to suicide case from 2018. Her case closely followed the sanction granted by the attorney general to initiate a contempt case against stand-up comic artist Kunal Kamra, for his tweets about the same judgment of the apex court.

It is not clear how Taneja’s case will pan out from here. The complainant who sought the AG’s sanction will have to file a case in the Supreme Court and thereafter, the apex court would have to list it for hearing, and then decide the matter. A 2009 contempt case against Prashant Bhushan was heard only in August 2020, and promptly deferred, after the blowback against the apex court for holding Bhushan guilty in another contempt case from this year.

From the total silence in the Kamra case after the initial hullabaloo, it seems that the apex court is not keen to take that particular process further. That is a wise course of action, which could be emulated in Taneja’s case. But the purpose of the apex court and the government is already served by the AG giving sanction on the complaint made by a law student.

It has sent a message to other comic artists and cartoonists that to avoid getting into a messy tangle with the law, they must pull their punches against the Supreme Court, even when its decisions and actions could be called out for bias. In case these artists do not fall prey to self-censorship, editors and owners of platforms which feature these artists will think twice before running their work, which is critical of the powerful. Not to be too impolite, this is censorship, induced through fear and legally sanctioned coercion.

If those charged with holding people in power to account were a military formation, political cartoonists and stand-up comics would form the absolute last line of defence. In political theory, they are not even found fit to be characterised as an institution capable of saving democracy. But when there are authoritarian rulers – be it medieval emperors like Akbar and Krishnadeva Raya, or popular modern fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, people like Birbal or Tenaliraman, who can deploy their wit to question those beyond questioning, matter. They sting us in a fundamental manner, prompting us to question our decisions, our actions and our values. They hold up a mirror to our rulers.

Political cartoonists and stand-up artists are not meant to win popularity contests and when free to deploy the sharp pen of ridicule and mockery, they count. Sir David Low’s cartoons against Adolf Hitler in the Evening Standard so antagonised the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s that his name was recorded in ‘The Black Book’ –  the list of persons the Nazis planned to arrest after invading England.

The Supreme Court is not the Fuhrer, and Taneja is no Sir David. But Goliaths are often felled by Davids. A state targeting cartoonists and comic artistes for their satirical work signals nothing but its fragility and weakness. Bullying cartoonists for their satire is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not of a democracy – a suspicion most thinking Indians, in any case, harbour about their country in these times. If those who hold power do not wish to confirm that suspicion, they should stop bothering about cartoons and cartoonists. 

Honey, it’s the money

An investigation by the Centre for Science and Environment has found that honey manufacturers have stayed one step ahead of adulteration checks. It found that while C4 sugars made from cane and cereals, and C3 sugars made from rice and beetroot, are detected by Indian testing, the Chinese have synthesised sugars that are added to Indian honey to lower production costs and increase margins. Thanks to a Chinese technology reportedly installed in plants in UP and Punjab, it passes undetected. 

Honey is regarded as a medicinal food in India, and the report could impact the market powerfully. CSE has conducted research for public health for the last 25 years, intervening to call attention to excessive pollution from two-stroke engines in 1996, during a vehicular pollution crisis in Delhi, and to the presence of unacceptable levels of pesticides and occasionally coliform bacteria in mineral water in 2003. Companies affected by those campaigns were two-wheeler maker Bajaj Auto and mineral water pioneer Bisleri. Now, it is leading honey sellers Dabur and Patanjali, which have reacted sharply, accusing CSE of a motivated attack on their brands. 

In Kashmir, displaced to be redisplaced

Residents of a small hamlet in Jammu and Kashmir named Rangwar, displaced by the 2005 earthquake and forced to settle three kilometers away on the Chowkibal-Tangdhar main road, have been served with eviction notices and the threat of demolition hangs over their heads in the punishing winter. The villagers are worried after witnessing the eviction of tribal people from forest areas in various parts of J&K, following the scrapping of the Roshni Act. The Union Territory administration says that the evictions were carried out as part of an anti-encroachment drive meant to retrieve forest and state land.

Parrikar haunts Sawant 

In a video from 2013, Manohar Parrikar, the late chief minister of Goa, is seen speaking against the double tracking of railway lines. It has gone viral in the state, his words coming back to haunt current Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, who has claimed that the doubling of the railway line is in the national interest and is not being done for coal transportation. Sawant had categorically stated on Monday that his predecessor was not opposed to the projects he is now pushing for.

Deep Dive

Does police repression in urban India spur everyday cooperation?

In his paper published in the Journal of Politics, Tariq Thachil finds that police repression prompts migrants to express increased willingness to cooperate with fellow migrants at shared work sites but not within shared residences. These effects can even extend across economic and ethnic divides. Thachil finds “suggestive evidence that repression induces solidarities rooted in shared experiences with the authorities, not simply pity for police targets.”

BoJo chief guest for Republic Day

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to be the chief guest at the 2021 Republic Day celebrations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had formally invited him during their November 27 telephone conversation. But given the surge in Covid-19 cases in the UK since October, it could be difficult for the British PM to commit to an overseas travel engagement in less than two months from now. The last British prime minister at the Republic Day parade was John Major in 1993. On the other hand, since a vaccine rollout in the UK is imminent, BoJo could arrive unmasked, and vaccinated to the gills.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Kaushik Basu writes that India’s lockdown was one of the world’s most fragile. Trains, trade and the economy were shut down, and 23 to 40 million workers were forced to scatter on foot. The lockdown became the ‘Great Unlocking’ that stalled the economy while spreading the virus.

  • Having fumbled on farm laws, the Centre must now rebuild trust with farmers. Yamini Aiyar and Mekhala Krishnamurthy conclude that it is essential for India’s reform process and the maintenance of the federal compact.

  • V. Venkatesan analyses judgements of nine non-Collegium judges which relate to the Supreme Court’s Basic Structure doctrine and finds a mixed record and uncertainty about the principle. The apex court had held in 1973 that some values cannot be altered or erased without violating the Constitution.

  • The problem of a rising defence pension budget can only be resolved by focusing directly on military pensions and striking a balance between the government’s financial constraints, service personnel’s interests and overall financial practicality, argue Amit Cowshish and Rahul Bedi.

Listen up

Listen to this wide-ranging interview with Zoya Akhtar, one of India’s finest movie directors today. She speaks to Sidharth Bhatia, a contributor to The India Cable, about her favourite films, her sensibilities as a filmmaker and other aspects of her work and world.

Watch Out

Dashrath Patel was the first director of education of the National Institute of Design, (NID), Ahmedabad, and the Padmashri awardee is rated very highly among India’s senior artists. He was a contemporary of Vasudeo S Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain, who were together in the late Fifties at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in Bombay. He collaborated closely with luminaries like Charles Eames, Louis Kahn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Frei Otto, Harendranath Chattopadhyaya, Chandralekha and others. To mark 10 years of his death, his friends have organised a brilliant online exhibition

In the end

Early this morning, it was exactly 36 years to the world’s worst ever industrial accident, at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984. A museum dedicated to the ‘gas tragedy’ survivors has shut down, but its online traces remain. Yesterday, the Madhya Pradesh government announced that Covid-19 has reduced their numbers by 102. Apart from the attrition of time, respiratory comorbidities acquired by inhaling methyl isocyanate have probably taken their toll. 

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.