The India Cable: Biden Finally Speaks To Modi; Govt To Recruit Indians To Rat On Other Indians

Plus: Beijing crows over VK Singh’s blunder, Sasikala plants her flag, Kisan Mahapanchayats in Haryana and Rajasthan today, Twitter stands firm while YouTube buckles on censorship demands, and Mallya

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 9, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Sasikala with MGR’s bust (by K. Pichumani, @Pichumani_TH, @THChennai)

Following the release of VK Sasikala, the arrival of Amma 2.0 promises to make Tamil Nadu politics more interesting, as it heads for its first election without the old war-horses leading the charge.    

US President Joe Biden has finally spoken to PM Modi, the 11th global leader to receive a call from him. The transcript from the White House said, “The President underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US-India relationship.” These details were missing from the Indian PM’s tweets but were obliquely covered in the official Indian statement. Also missing was the resolve “that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld in Burma (sic)”.

As expected, Beijing has lapped up the opportunity provided by Union Minister VK Singh’s boastful claims about Indian transgressions onto the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (see The India Cable yesterday). The former Army chief appears to be completely bereft of strategic sense. 

The Caravan magazine has been selected by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University for the 2021 Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. The Nieman Fellows selected the magazine “in recognition of its unique and uncompromising coverage of the erosion of human rights, social justice, and democracy in India,” noting that “the selection of this publication comes under extraordinary and alarming circumstances”. The Supreme Court has granted protection from arrest to The Caravan editor Vinod K Jose, along with prominent journalists who face sedition cases in various BJP-ruled states. But today, the Enforcement Directorate raided the offices of the NewsClick portal and the homes of the editor and owner.  

The induction ceremony of the first batch of five Rafale jets at the IAF base in Ambala cost the exchequer a little over Rs 41 lakh, including Rs 9.18 lakh GST. There were 299 incidents of ceasefire violations on the Line of Control with Pakistan until January 28 this year. India lost 46 security personnel in 5,133 ceasefire violations last year.

The Ministry of Home Affairs will run a pilot project in Jammu and Kashmir and Tripura to recruit citizens to rat on other citizens. They can register to report digital traffic relating to child pornography, rape and terrorism ― and also on radicalisation and anti-national activities. The last two are problematic because they are not clearly defined crimes, but often matters of opinion, and the scheme is outside legal frameworks. The opportunities for motivated reporting to settle scores, and to score brownie points with the Home Ministry, are obvious. Recruits are forbidden to reveal their connections with the ministry, so this move amounts to planting moles in communities, organisations and even families, a policy once favoured by the Soviets. 

In 2013, the year after the Delhi gang rape, the government launched the ambitious Nirbhaya Fund, vowing to reduce violence against women. But a major new report by Oxfam India finds that the fund has failed due to red tape, underspend, obscure allocations and a lack of political will.

The Uttarakhand disaster could owe to heavy snow leading to an avalanche, rather than a glacial system bursting, satellite images show. About 170 people are believed to be still trapped, 35 of them in the tunnel of a dam, while 26 bodies have been recovered. 

Yesterday, the Supreme Court underscored the right of adults to choose their life partner, and said it is time society learns to accept inter-caste and inter-faith marriages.

Vijay Mallya has been granted access to around £1.1 million from court-held funds for living costs and legal fees. The King of Good Times is most likely seeking asylum, and his application would have to be addressed confidentially before UK Home Secretary Priti Patel can sign off on his extradition.


Twitter stands up to Modi government, YouTube capitulates

Twitter has issued a new statement about its ongoing tensions with the Modi government over blocking of certain accounts in India, and starts with an emphasis on employee safety. The government had last week threatened Twitter officials in India with up to seven years in prison for restoring accounts it wanted blocked. The statement also says that Twitter reviews every request and takes appropriate action while making sure that it protects the public conversation. “We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the tweets must continue to flow,” the statement says. It cannot be music to the ears of the Modi government.

Meanwhile, YouTube has taken down music videos related to the ongoing farmers’ protests in India. They were categorised as “songs of resistance” and legal complaints were filed against them by the government. These include the tracks ‘Ailaan’ by Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal and ‘Asi Vaddange’ by Himmat Sandhu. They had had 10 million and 13 million views respectively, before they were taken offline. Perhaps singers and musicians overseas will respond to this censorship, amplifying the farmers’ movement like the Rihanna episode did. 


Farmers want a law, not a promise

California’s Punjabi farmers, among the oldest Asian immigrants in the US, have rallied behind the ongoing farmers protests, joining the backlash against laws “shoved down people’s throats”. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a network of organisations spearheading the farmer protests, condemned PM Narendra Modi’s controversial remarks in Parliament about ‘andolanjeevis’, “parasites” who live off protests. In a press statement, it “condemned” Prime Minister Modi’s “insult” to farmers and said, “Andolans liberated India from the British and therefore we are proud to be ‘andolanjeevi’. The BJP’s predecessors never did ‘andolan’ (rising, or movement) against the British and were always against andolans. That’s why they are still scared of public movements.” Rakesh Tikait of the Bharatiya Kisan Union has responded to the PM’s rhetoric of “MSP (minimum support price) was, is and will be” in the Rajya Sabha. He said that the country does not run on trust and assurances, but “on the Constitution and laws”.

Two Kisan Mahapanchayats are being held today at Kurukshetra, Haryana, and Jaisora, Rajasthan. Deep Sidhu, the main accused in the January 26 commotion at the Red Fort, has been arrested, say the Delhi Police. The cops had offered a reward of Rs 1 lakh for information about him and three others. The beneficiaries are yet unknown.


Mask a must, even if alone

Wearing a mask should not be an ego issue even when you are alone in a private car, at the wheel, as it’s for one’s own safety from Covid-19 infection, the Delhi High Court has observed while hearing a plea challenging challans for driving bare-faced. Justice Prathiba M Singh orally observed that wearing a mask is for one’s own safety from the virus because when a person stops the vehicle at the traffic signal and rolls the window down, there is a chance of catching the infection. 

Just as Victorian gentlemen would not dream of being seen in public without a hat, citizens of Delhi have acquired the unique cultic practice of never entering an automobile without a mask, even if it is to drive alone. This is because the Delhi Police opened a new revenue stream early in the pandemic, fining people who thought that they did not need a mask while alone in a car. Because from the beginning of the pandemic, too, health authorities from the WHO to the mohalla clinic have said that the mask is not for the protection of the wearer, but for the protection of people nearby. 


Illegal detention not detention at all?

The Bombay High Court has rejected default bail to Bhima Koregaon case accused Gautam Navlakha, stating that the period for which an accused is under illegal detention cannot be taken into account while computing the 90-day custody period for the grant of statutory bail.

Navlakha had applied for bail on the reasonable ground that the National Investigation Agency had failed to file a chargesheet against him in the statutory 90-day period. But a period of 34 days when he was under house arrest became the crux of the matter, since it was later deemed to be illegal detention by the High Court. The court has relied on a technicality to deny bail, which is a right. Whether legally or illegally, Navlakha was indeed in detention. It recalls the strange experience of Saifuddin Soz in Kashmir, who was in detention, but was not. 


The Long Cable

After ‘liberandus’, ‘termites’ and ‘GOBAR’, ‘Andolanjeevis’ to energise neighbourhood uncles

Sidharth Bhatia

The Acronyms and Creative Insults Department (ACID) has done it again ― it’s given us two brand new terms, ‘Andolanjeevi’, or professional agitator, and ‘FDI’ or repulsive Foreign Destructive Ideology, rather than the sought-after foreign direct investment. These gems come from the same team that has in the past given us catchy words and phrases such as ‘liberandus’, ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’, and ‘termites’, to describe liberals, student protesters and alleged infiltrators from Bangladesh, as well as B2B (Bharat and Bhutan) and GOBAR (Galvanising Organic Bio Agro Resources).

The two new terms were revealed to the world by the Prime Minister in the hallowed precincts of Parliament. The new definition of FDI may be too clunky to catch on, but look out for the cracking ‘Andolanjeevi’ being used freely by BJP spokespersons on TV, the troll army and the uncles on the colony park bench, who are always on the lookout for new bon mots.

But the Twittersphere was a bit skeptical. Memes sprang up instantly, with photographs of a young Narendra Modi as part of the Advani rath yatra in 1991, which left a trail of blood in its wake, and also images of Gandhi, Mandela and the millions of people around the world who agitated against injustice. The point was made — andolans make a difference, and even bring down governments and empires.

But such cleverly dismissive turns of phrase also reflect upon the Prime Minister and his government’s complete disdain for people’s movements and protests, which they see as needless inconveniences, rather than reflections of genuine disaffection and the people’s will.

Whether it’s the protests by hundreds of women worried about being rendered stateless by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or by lakhs of farmers fighting against laws that smack of crony capitalism, this government has never acknowledged that protesters may have a point. At the very least, that point of view needs to be heard sympathetically and then addressed humanely and imaginatively.

On public platforms, BJP spokespersons and trolls have abused the farmers as Khalistanis and worse, while the government pushes the narrative of being reasonable and open to discussion, short of withdrawing the laws as demanded by the farmers. The government has also let it be known that the farmers are being led astray by political elements and extreme leftists, who are all involved in a major international conspiracy, no doubt led by Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. A ‘toolkit’ for organising agitations and campaigns – nothing more than the regular training material used by NGOs – was declared to be ‘evidence’ of this conspiracy, and the Ministry of External Affairs swung into action.

Yet, the solution to this crisis is right at home, in the Prime Minister’s backyard, should the government want to solve it. It is no use saying that the farmers are being unreasonable. The government, too, is stubbornly holding its maximalist position. And rampant abuse of farmers – the salt of the earth, who grow our food – is not going to help.

Narendra Modi’s words in Parliament make it clear that the government will continue with its strategy of ridiculing protesters, while the farmers have declared that they can easily stay put for months. Cutting this Gordian knot requires a subtle political approach and an open mind, not tacky put-downs. The farmers have public opinion on their side and growing international support, sparked off by Rihanna’s original tweet and amplified by the government’s backlash against it. But a resolution would require the help of Buddhijeevis, people who live by the intellect. They are in short supply in a government which has spent the better part of a decade dismissing intellect as irrelevant.


Reportedly

VK Sasikala on Monday invoked a famous number from an MGR film to make clear her intention of staging a comeback to politics and the AIADMK. The close aide of late chief minister J Jayalalithaa asserted that she would actively participate in politics and will not “bow down” to “suppressive measures”. Amidst her supporters and cadres of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) gathered at Vaniyambadi in Tirupathur district, Sasikala, firmly ensconced in her car, used the public address system to send her message to the media and the public. Citing the opening lines of an MGR film song, Anbukku naan adimai, she stressed that she would never be cowed down.


Avalanche, not glacier, triggered catastrophe

An avalanche triggered by heavy snowfall for two consecutive days in the upper reaches of Chamoli district ― and not the rupture of a glacier as thought earlier ― was the likely cause of the devastating flash flood in Uttarakhand, Indian scientists have found. At a review meeting in Dehradun, scientists from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing presented images showing heavy snow in the catchment area of the Rishi Ganga on February 5-6, which disappeared after the event.

Flash floods in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand have not affected the Army’s commitment to maintain its supply lines to Barahoti, 80 sq km of “contested” area along the LAC with China. The flood has impacted one of the major routes to Barahoti and Niti Pass, which lies 100 km from Joshimath on the north-eastern axis but the alternative Pithoragarh-Darchula-Lipulekh road remains open.


Cairn threat taxes government’s wits

India has challenged an international arbitration tribunal’s verdict that overturned its demand for Rs 22,100 crore in back taxes from Vodafone Group Plc in Singapore, and the order passed in the Cairn Group’s case is “under consideration” by the government. An international tribunal in the Hague had unanimously overturned a Rs 10,247 crore retrospective tax demand on British oil and gas company Cairn Energy, which had delivered India’s biggest mainland oilfield, and asked the government to return shares it sold, dividend it seized and tax refunds it stopped to enforce collection. There were reports that if the government did not honour the order, Indian assets abroad would be confiscated and given to Cairn. News reports said that in lieu of $1.4 billion, India would offer Cairn oil and gas fields.


Prime number: 308,630
The number of complaints received against banks in FY 2019-20, up by 58% from 195,901 complaints a year earlier, according to RBI’s annual report on Banking Ombudsman Scheme. Of the total complaints received by the banking ombudsman, 44.66% concerned digital transactions. In previous years, there were more complaints about banks not adhering to the Fair Practices Code.

Tamil Pebbles is best film

Indian drama Koozhangal (Pebbles), directed by filmmaker Vinothraj PS, has won the top honour, the Tiger Award for best film, at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam. The Tamil language film follows an alcoholic, abusive husband who, after his long-suffering wife runs off, sets out with his young son to find her and bring her back. On the festival’s website, the jury described Koozhangal as a lesson in pure cinema. “Although the story deals with gruelling poverty in the searing, drought-ridden landscapes of southern India, it succeeded nonetheless in captivating the jury with its beauty and humour.” Koozhangal stars several newcomers and is produced by Vignesh Shivan and Nayanthara


Karnataka passes controversial anti-cow slaughter legislation

The Karnataka government on Monday forcibly pushed the contentious Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020, through the legislative council amid an uproar by the Opposition over the lack of an extended debate and denial of calls for reference to a select committee to address concerns about the Bill being “anti-farmer”. It was passed by a voice vote. This Bill shares features with controversial rules which were introduced nationally and caused an uproar. Farmers and other groups had approached the top Court, forcing the Centre to think again.


Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • Narendra Modi’s demonisation of ‘andolanjeevis’ is a bit thick, because he was an agitator himself, while in the Opposition. In the Seventies, he had participated in the Gujarat Navnirman Andolan against Indira Gandhi, and had spoken of protesting students as the ‘sons and daughters of Bharat Mata’. And in 1991, of course, he was an organiser of LK Advani’s rathayatra.  

  • It is better to describe India as “electoral authoritarianism” rather than an “illiberal democracy” because the playing field is so uneven that alternation of power is almost impossible, and elections, opponents, journalists, intellectuals, NGOs, and dissenters including farmers are bound to be targeted. It also denies the authoritarian regime “some legitimacy and even a rather acceptable image” of a democracy, which it craves, says Christophe Jaffrelot.

  • Salil Tripathi diagnoses “Narendra Modi’s hashtag problem” in restofworld.org ― India’s government is at odds with the very platforms that helped it rise to power.

  • While our government responded strongly to Rihanna and Greta Thunberg and the External Affairs Ministry issued a statement, it hasn’t said anything about the downgrading of India’s democracy by The Economist, which more people will read and take seriously than someone’s tweet, writes Aakar Patel.


Listen up

In response to protests by farmers outside New Delhi, the Modi government had blocked access to the mobile internet at the sites where they have camped. The move is the latest in the government’s long history of throttling internet access and censoring speech online. Why is the Modi government increasingly stifling digital dissent, and what does the party’s history of internet shutdowns tell us about India’s future? Pranav Dixit answers on Slate’s WhatNext podcast.


Watch Out

A Vice documentary and explainer about women farmers, who are the backbone of what is now the world’s biggest protest. 

Cooking up a storm

Launched in April 2018, the Village Cooking Channel has become an internet darling, with more than 7.4 million subscribers. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has appeared on it. Their biggest hit, the ‘mutton curry’ video, has 49 million views. They had been posting videos regularly since 2018, but didn’t garner much of a following. Their ‘aha’ moment came when they posted a video showing how eesal (winged termites) are caught and eaten.


JNU to remain JNU

There is no proposal for changing the name of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the Union Education Minister has revealed. An excellent idea, The India Cable thinks. It is far better to build new universities, institutions, roads and bridges, and just name them.


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.