The India Cable: Biden Urged Not to Issue H-1Bs to Indians, Domestic Airfares to Rise 30%

Plus: MoD hits back at 'loss of land in Ladakh' jibe, OTTs plan self-regulation as govt moves to regulate internet media, Indians leading phone junkies, Tom and Jerry attend big fat Indian wedding

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

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Snapshot of the day
February 12, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

In a press conference, Rahul Gandhi attacked the “sheepish” statement of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Parliament yesterday about the troop pullback in eastern Ladakh, accusing him and the Prime Minister of ceding Indian territory to make peace. Status quo ante April 2020 was the Indian demand in the negotiations, but it has not been met, and strategically significant exchanges of territory have not been achieved either.

Responding to the charges levelled by the opposition, the Ministry of Defence on Friday issued a statement insisting that “India has not conceded any territory as a result of this agreement. On the contrary, it has enforced observance and respect for LAC and prevented any unilateral change in the status quo.”

The “outstanding problems… including at Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang”, it said,  “are to be taken up within 48 hrs of the completion of the Pangong Tso disengagement,” adding, “Those who doubt the achievements made possible by the sacrifices of our military personnel are actually disrespecting them.”

Domestic flight ticket prices are to rise steeply as the government has increased fares by up to 30%. The lower cap on fares has been raised by 10% and above while the upper cap has been raised by up to 30%. The new fare norms will come into effect immediately and remain until March 31, or perhaps until scheduled flights resume.

Home Minister Amit Shah said in West Bengal that the process of granting Indian citizenship to refugees under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, including to the Matua community of West Bengal, which the BJP has been courting, would begin as soon as the Covid vaccination programme ends. By most estimates, it will take three years to vaccinate every Indian and there is no scientific or legal reason to link these two timelines. Shah also promised to credit Rs 18,000 to the bank account of each farmer if they bring the BJP to power in West Bengal. They’ve heard similar promises before. And in another blow to the Trinamool Congress, its MP and former rail minister Dinesh Trivedi has resigned from the Rajya Sabha citing his failure to do anything about “violence” in Bengal.

The Delhi High Court has issued notices to Delhi Police, the Delhi government and the chief medical officer of the district hospital, Rampur, Uttar Pradesh in connection with the petition filed by a family member of Navreet Singh, the 25-year-old farmer who died during the Republic Day tractor rally. Singh’s grandfather Hardeep Singh Dibdiba had moved the Delhi High Court on Wednesday seeking a court-monitored special investigating team (SIT) to probe his death. His family has maintained that Navreet’s death was caused by a bullet injury.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau spoke to PM Modi on many issues, including on the “two nations’ commitment to democratic principles, recent protests, and the importance of resolving issues through dialogue”, a Canadian statement said. The portion about farmers’ protests was missing from the Indian version of the transcript.

Anticipating heavy-handed government regulation(see below), 17 OTT platforms including Netflix, Disney+Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video have adopted a toolkit for efficient implementation of a self-regulating code adopted last year, the Internet and Mobile Association of India has said. They can’t have factored in generic suspicion about toolkits in the corridors of power. 

Trigger happy cops in Uttar Pradesh added Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s name to a criminal case they filed over a video that allegedly defamed Narendra Modi before someone advised them this would not be a smart move. His name and those of three other top Google officials were “removed after they were found not involved in the case,” a police official was quoted by PTI as saying.

Writer’s cramp can be considered as a disability. The Supreme Court has ruled that sufferers are entitled to take a scribe to write competitive examinations, including those for the civil services. Writer’s cramp is a type of focal dystonia ― a neurological movement disorder ― that affects one’s fingers, hand, or forearm. The patient’s brain sends incorrect information to the muscles, causing involuntary, excessive muscle contractions making his/her hands twist into odd postures.

A nationwide relay hunger strike by doctors of the Indian Medical Association, against “mixopathy”, or the teaching of surgery in alternative medicine courses, has entered its 10th day. 

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said Prime Minister Modi’s emotional adieu to leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad on Wednesday was a “well-crafted performance”. Participating in a discussion on former Vice President Hamid Ansari’s autobiography, Tharoor said that the PM’s waterworks “was partly in response to Rakesh Tikait’s tears that the Prime Minister decided he also has tears.” Moderator Rajdeep Sardesai pointedly asked if he was actually calling the Prime Minister’s breakdown in the Rajya Sabha a “performance”. “Yes,” insisted Tharoor. The Oscar nomination is awaited. Meanwhile, Jhumpa Lahiri has won the 2020 John Florio Prize for her ‘exceptional’ and ‘agile’ translation from Italian of Trick by Domenico Starnone.

Farmers’ issues raised in UK and Indian parliament

UK Labour Party MP and shadow Rail Minister Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi raised the issue of the farmers’ protest, including the arrest of Noudeep Kaur, in the British Parliament and asked for a debate. The UK government replied that the “(UK) Foreign secretary discussed the farmers protest with his Indian counterpart in December. The UK Government will continue to follow the farmers’ protest closely, respecting that agricultural reform is a domestic policy issue for India.” In the Indian Parliament, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi accused the Modi government of “destroying mandis and promoting hoarding to benefit a couple of corporate friends,” spinning the old family planning slogan, “Hum do hamare do.” He didn’t name the duo, but an angry BJP minister got up and did, fulfilling the Opposition’s wishes. The slogan was closely associated during the Emergency with Rahul’s uncle Sanjay Gandhi, whose wife and son are BJP MPs.

Gandhi, along with other MPs of Opposition parties including the NCP, DMK and TMC, also stood in silence in the Lok Sabha for a minute to remember those who lost their lives during the farmers’ protests. BJP MPs remained seated.

A Kisan Mahapanchayat was held on Thursday in Punjab’s Jagraon, the first in the state, where leaders said the agitation was no longer about farmers alone. Farmers’ unions have announced a schedule for mahapanchayats to be held in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh) today, followed by Bahadurgarh bypass (Haryana) on February 13, Sri Ganganagar (Rajasthan) on February 18, Hanumangarh (Rajasthan) on February 19 and Sikar (Rajasthan) on February 23. Uttar Pradesh Police has booked Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) vice-president Jayant Chaudhary along with 20 identified persons and over 6,000 others under the Epidemic Diseases Act for allegedly violating Covid-19 protocols by participating in a major farmers’ mahapanchayat in Aligarh district.

MP’s Twitter account blocked

Twitter has geo-blocked the account of Rajya Sabha MP and Samajwadi Party leader Chaudhary Sukhram Singh Yadav from access in India, in response to a legal notice. However, users outside the country can see the MP’s tweets. It is not clear if Yadav’s account was blocked on the directives of the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, for allegedly spreading misinformation about the farmers’ protest. Twitter has reportedly taken down “90-95 per cent” of the accounts which the government wanted withheld for posting inflammatory content about the farmer protests.

Rules to control social media, OTT and digital news platforms

In the middle of a controversy over Twitter, the Modi government has readied draft rules to regulate all social media, streaming or OTT (Over the Top) platforms and news-related websites. The rules revolve around a self-regulatory mechanism that will include a code of ethics and regular compliance reports. A chief compliance officer will respond 24x7 to complaints from law enforcement agencies and submit regular reports about compliance. 

The rules propose a grievance redressal portal and an oversight mechanism, to be developed by the government, which will “coordinate adherence to [the] Code of Ethics by publishers and self-regulating bodies”. A Secretary-rank officer will have powers to take action in case of an emergency and place the matter before the committee within 48 hours. The draft proposes to remove, or at least heavily reduce, the ‘safe harbour’ shelter that social media giants have sought for user content.

Ruling party amplifies call to hang journalists

A YouTuber calls for Indian journalists to be “hanged”, and BJP bigwigs and random Hindu nationalists describe his video as an “honest cause”, insist that it contains “nothing illegal or offensive”, and swarm in Twitter to condemn the fact that YouTube, quite correctly, took the video down for violating its policies. The video was published on February 11 by an account called The String, which purports to work towards “establishing a network among individuals who are working towards uplifting the culture and spiritual ethos of this country”. 

Titled “Arrest Rathee, Zubair, Barkha NOW! (Greta Toolkit Exposed)”, the video accused a group of “leftist” journalists, activists and media organisations of everything from being “the real Godi media” to participating in a “money trail” and having “vested interests”. The video’s targets included Barkha Dutt, Mohammed Zubair, Saket Gokhale, Newslaundry, Scroll, AltNews, The Wire, The Quint, The News Minute, IndiaSpend, Outlook, and PARI. The video specifically demanded that the journalists and activists in question “be hanged”. When the video was taken down, BJP bigwigs like spokespersons in Mumbai and Tamil Nadu, and former Delhi MLA Kapil Mishra, tweeted in protest. So did members of the RSS.

The Long Cable

Following government orders can be in tension with the law, human rights”

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, professor of political communication and Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, spoke to Tanweer Alam of The India Cable about Twitter’s predicament in India, which could be a turning point for relations between platforms and governments

TA: There has been a huge controversy about the Modi government’s orders to Twitter to geo-ban certain accounts and the social media company’s refusal to implement them fully. What do you make of this situation?

RKN: The confrontation between the Indian government and Twitter is a defining moment for the future of online speech. In my view, it is far more important than any of the decisions taken by the Facebook Oversight Board which, while an interesting initiative, has a limited brief. What is happening in India may well set the tone for relations between governments and platform companies going forward, and it will give us a better sense of whether these companies ― which generally recognise that they should abide by local laws ― in situations where they are directed by a government to do something they do not believe is consistent with local laws, or consistent with basic human rights like free speech, will be able to push back. Or are they expected to simply obey orders, however flimsy their basis might be? 

It is clear that states’ international human rights law obligations require that they respect, protect and fulfil human rights locally and that companies should both abide by the law and respect human rights. But sometimes, following government orders can be in tension with abiding by the law or with respecting human rights. If a government issues orders that a company believes are not consistent with local law or do not protect human rights, the company will have a decision to make ― take a stance, or fold? 

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provides a clear basis for taking a stance. They are very clear about private companies’ responsibility in situations where a state may not be fulfilling its human rights obligations. The principles state, “The responsibility to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct  for  all  business  enterprises wherever  they  operate.  It  exists  independently  of  States’  abilities  and/or  willingness  to  fulfil  their  own  human  rights  obligations.”

TA: How does one find a balance between the government’s directions and the people’s democratic right to freedom of speech?

RKN: In most situations, it should ideally be up to the independent judiciary, not the government, to decide what people can and cannot say in a democracy, on the basis of clear legislation and with due process.

TA: India has seen a precipitous drop in the Press Freedom Rankings, going down to 142nd place. Is such a situation, how do you see the role of social media companies and independent digital media?

RKN: Social media companies play an ambivalent role when it comes to free speech and free media. There are many instances in which they have, either unilaterally for their own private reasons, or at the behest of various governments, taken down speech that fundamental human rights suggests should be allowed. That said, they also allow a much wider range of voices in public debate, voices that can often be harder for governments to control than other forms of expression, and they do sometimes push back in situations where governments are selectively trying to stifle some voices.

TA: How does it impact the ability of citizens to make informed choices and thus, the quality of democracy?

RKN: Social media have, for good and ill, broadened online debate, and they are used both for robust public discussion, disseminating news, and, more troublingly, for abhorrent forms of hate speech and trolling. The question then is how we, as societies, develop norms and standards for this debate so it can enhance our democracies, and ensure that, when necessary and legitimate, speech is moderated appropriately and the worst excesses curtailed. Currently, such moderation is largely done by private companies acting on their own, with little transparency, and for their own reasons, and, increasingly, in response to often equally opaque requests from governments, with little in terms of proper oversight, independent scrutiny, or due process. This is not a great situation, and we need to find a better way of protecting free speech without giving too much power to either private companies or to governments.

Prime Number: 2,072
The number of Indians who died due to coronavirus in various foreign countries. The highest death toll of 906 was reported in Saudi Arabia, followed by 375 in the United Arab Emirates.

Nepal bans three Indians for tall Everest claim

Nepal has banned two Indian climbers and their team leader for six years from mountaineering in the country after an investigation found they had faked their 2016 climb of Mount Everest. Narender Singh Yadav and Seema Rani Goswami’s climb was certified by the tourism department at the time, but action was initiated against them when they failed to produce evidence of reaching the summit after Yadav was nominated for an award.

Biden urged to stop H-1B for India-born workers

Immigration Voice, the influential advocacy group which argues that green card backlogs have put Indian workers in a situation like indentured labour, on Thursday urged the Biden administration not to issue the most sought-after H-1B work visa to any individual born in India until the discriminatory country cap on green cards or permanent legal residency is removed. The current per-country cap on issuing green cards in the US has resulted in Indian professionals, mostly from the IT sector, having to wait in uncertainty for decades for permanent residency. Issuing new H-1B visas to more Indians would add to this agonisingly painful wait for green cards.

Indians are leading phone junkies

The average phone user in India has increased consumption by four times in the last year, and India leads the world in smartphone usage with users spending just 12 minutes short of five hours on the device every day, on average. Almost 55% of this consumption is accounted for by short content on YouTube, social media and OTT apps, and the remaining 45% goes to other content, mainly fintech and ecommerce. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Twitter obviously wants to stay in the huge Indian market, and must be concerned about potential reprisals against the company and its employees, including fines, prison terms, and other forms of official harassment. At the same time, it wants to be seen as a platform that supports free speech, and doesn’t just cave in to totalitarian states. That is the platform’s dilemma, writes Mathew Ingram, veteran watcher of the commercial internet.

  • A broad-based MSP regime catering to all major crops would not only be fiscally prudent, but also incentivise crop diversification based on agro-climatic conditions. Extending MSPs to pulses and millets would help reduce dependence on imports and encourage better agricultural practices that would benefit farmers in the poorest rain-fed regions, writes Himanshu.

  • Is the economy on course to a V-shaped recovery, or has the lockdown left significant scars and headwinds against revival, asks Roshan Kishore, looking at four data points.

  • Prashant Reddy & Vishal Rakhecha say the government should ensure that academic journals are available at fair prices by pushing for amendments to the Berne Convention, which allows member states to introduce a registration requirement for publishers

  • Munawar Iqbal Faruqui was the face of the Indian dream, writes Sonia Faleiro. An example of how an individual’s economic circumstances and religion need never stand in the way of his ambition and skill. His dream is on hold, but the stand-up comic remains the face of his country ― a place where dreams can quickly turn into nightmares.

Listen Up

Mekhala Krishnamurthy talks to Srinath Raghavan and analyses India’s agricultural sector, its markets, and the impact of the new farm laws.

Watch Out

Christophe Jaffrelot speaks on ‘Populism against Democracy or People against Democracy?’

Cat and mouse at big fat Indian wedding

A new Tom and Jerry feature film has an Indian wedding in it. In the trailer, the hotel where Chloë Grace Moretz’s and Michael Peña’s characters work is also the venue of a big fat Indian wedding, complete with chaos. Director Tim Story said, “We know we broke a few rules here and there, but we tried to keep as good as we could!” Pallavi Sharda plays the bride.

And a desi couple in the US felt the “need to do something crazy.” They went skiing in a saree and a dhoti, and went viral right away. 

A post shared by 𝕯ivya 𝕸aiya (@divyamaiya)

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, 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.