The India Cable: BJP Reopening Punjab’s Wounds, India Flunks Covid Test

Plus: 75% of India’s smartphones are Chinese, TikTok closes down, in UP, FIRs for truthful reporting, no bail for jailed comic and a doctor proves yet again that laughter is the best medicine

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
January 28, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

While hearing the bail plea of an actor, the Supreme Court has supported the popular claim that religious sentiments must not be hurt. Leaving aside the fact that Munawar Faruqui’s performance had not even begun, this reasoning gives the mob, which suffers chronically from prickly heat, the confidence to decide what can be written, sung or filmed for public consumption. We have no need for Ayatollahs here. Any citizen with a thick skull and a thin skin can serve as censor. We are democratic, after all. 

Protesting farmers were branded Khalistanis early in the movement, and the raising of the Nishan Sahib pennant at Red Fort ― apparently by a BJP stooge out to discredit the movement ― provided a fresh opportunity for demonisation. Its echo reached New York, where a procession of cars bearing yellow flags heading towards Brooklyn on January 26 was referred to as “Khalistanis” and “thugs” by an Indian driver who filmed it.   

Sixteen opposition parties including the Congress, NCP, Trinamool, the Left and the DMK have announced a boycott of the President’s speech on the opening day of the budget session of parliament in protest at the government’s intransigence over the three farm laws. And in news from America’s legislature, Indian-origin US lawmakers Pramila Jayapal and Raja Krishnamoorthi have been named to key congressional committees on the budget and the Covid-19 pandemic by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Wednesday spoke to new US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in the first high-level engagement after Joe Biden was sworn in.

The 2021 IPL player auction will be held on February 18 in Chennai. Former India captain and BCCI president Sourav Ganguly has been hospitalised for the second time this month after complaining of “chest discomfort”. Admitted to the Apollo Gleneagles hospital in Kolkata on Wednesday, he will undergo a stenting procedure on Thursday.

Three Rafale jets have flown nonstop from France to India, and were refuelled in midair by the UAE air force. This is the third set of deliveries of the aircraft to the IAF. And the government is sticking to the S-400 deal with Russia, despite the threat of possible US sanctions.

India flunks Covid test

Data shows that India was very poor at managing the pandemic, placing PM Modi in the ignominious company of his friends Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. India is ranked 86 among 98 countries in terms of average performance in the 36 weeks following their hundredth confirmed case. Every other South Asian country did better ― Sri Lanka is ranked 10, Pakistan 69, Nepal 70, and Bangladesh is at 84. Mexico, the US, Brazil and Iran fared worse. China was not included in this ranking due to the lack of publicly available data on testing.

Farmers to fast on Martyr’s Day

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of agitating farmer unions, have postponed the march to Parliament on February 1 after Tuesday’s violence in Delhi during the tractor parade. Instead, they plan to fast and hold meetings across the country on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30. Two farmer unions, which were not part of the 40 farmer groups represented by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, have withdrawn from the agitation against the three farm laws. 

Over a lakh farmers marched peacefully on January 26, but images of a few hundred clashing with the police dominated the news. This eyewitness account of the incident at Red Fort tells a story which is totally at variance with the narrative pushed by the ruling party and the mainstream media. 

After the hoisting of the Sikh pennant at the gates of the Red Fort, actor turned activist Deep Sidhu drew flak from protesters for damaging the farmers’ movement. In videos on social media, angry farmers can be seen chasing Sidhu. In one such video where Sidhu is seen doing a Facebook Live on a tractor after the flag was hoisted, a group of farmers are seen roughing him up, saying, “You have damaged the entire movement.” Some farmers come to his rescue and he is seen alighting from the tractor and running towards a bike. The farmers are seen giving chase, and cursing him for damaging their cause. 

One law for Arnab, Amish, another for Zeeshan

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to grant protection from arrest to Tandav web series producers and actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in multiple FIRs lodged in different states for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. Senior advocates Fali S Nariman, Mukul Rohatgi and Siddharth Luthra asked the court to issue orders against any coercive action against the petitioners, relying upon the top court’s recent judgement in the cases of journalists Arnab Goswami and Amish Devgan. The court turned down the request, saying that they may approach the respective High Courts for anticipatory bail. 

Ayyub’s counsel contended that an actor was contracted to play a character. His views on screen cannot be ascribed to him in person. Justice MR Shah replied, “You cannot take up [a] role without reading script. You cannot play a role hurting religious sentiments of others.”

Swimming pools open, more people in cinemas

The government has allowed cinema halls and theatres to operate with bigger audiences while swimming pools have been permitted for use by all in fresh Covid-19 reopening guidelines. From February 1, there shall be no restriction on inter-state and intra-state movement of people and goods including those for cross land border trade under treaties with neighbouring countries. All activities have been permitted outside containment zones, except a few which will be subject to strict adherence of SOPs.

11% still out of labour market post-lockdown

Almost one out of every five in the informal sector were either out of the labour market or were unemployed in the post-lockdown period between October and December, as per a new survey by the Azim Premji University. The survey showed that while 3% were unemployed and 4% more were out of the labour market in the pre-lockdown period (February), during the lockdown 61% were unemployed and 10% were out of the labour market. And if one compares that with the post-lockdown period, at least 11% are still out of the labour market and 8% are unemployed.

TikTok shut down, Chinese embassy ticks off India

After seven months, the government has made the ban on TikTok permanent. It is shutting down operations and sacking its staff of over 2,000.

In a statement on Wednesday Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said the nation’s ban on Chinese apps violates guidelines of the World Trade Organisation. “These moves in violation of WTO non-discriminatory principles and fair competition principles of market economy severely damage the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies. The Chinese side firmly opposes them.” It also said that; “The Indian government has the responsibility to follow WTO rules and market principles and protect the legitimate rights and interests of international investors including Chinese companies. These moves of the Indian government have also hindered the improvement of the Indian business environment and the innovative development of related Indian industries. China-India economic and trade cooperation is mutually beneficial by nature. We urge the Indian side to immediately correct its discriminatory measures and avoid causing further damage to bilateral cooperation.”

New MP law now targets Christians

Madhya Pradesh police have arrested the parents of a woman and seven other people under the state’s new law which penalises religious conversions through ‘fraudulent’ means. Before the arrest of the accused, some Bajrang Dal workers on Tuesday created a ruckus at a centre of the Christian community in Indore, alleging that many people there were being forced to convert. 

In a video, Bajrang Dal workers are purportedly seen raising provocative religious slogans at the centre, the ‘Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra’. The centre’s director Father Babu Joseph said the hall was given to a Christian community group for a prayer meeting. The local police said that the majority of those who took part in Tuesday’s programme at the centre told them that they came there voluntarily and have no complaints.

The Long Cable

With Khalistan ploy, Modi government is reopening old wounds of Punjab

MK Venu

The Modi government, always on the back foot during the sustained farmers’ protests through the biting Delhi winter, is on the offensive after the Republic Day chaos caused by farmers’ groups whose actions have been condemned by the mainstream unions coordinating the agitation. Nevertheless, the farmers’ unions have taken moral responsibility for the vandalism caused by a mix of “anti-social elements” and renegade farmers’ groups. The farmers’ unions are attributing the vandalism at the Red Fort to actions by maverick activist Deep Sidhu, who was an election agent of BJP candidate Sunny Deol in Gurdaspur. A picture of Sidhu taken at the PM’s residence, standing beside Modi and Sunny Deol, is also circulating. It may not be mere coincidence that Deep Sidhu was called by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in December to join an investigation as a witness against the global organisation, Sikhs for Justice, which was allegedly helping the farmers at the Delhi border. The NIA is trying to link Sikhs for Justice to the Khalistan project. In short, there are wheels within wheels in the way the state apparatus has been going about dealing with the farmers’ protests for legally guaranteed returns on farm produce.

After the Red Fort incident, Home Minister Amit Shah seems to have instructed the NIA and Delhi Police to double down on registering cases against farm leaders and all entities that may have been involved in the alleged funding of the farmers’ agitation. Shah completely failed to protect the Red Fort from a motley group of Sikh activists, and may unleash the playbook methods deployed after the anti-CAA protests and the Delhi riots, in a bid to break the farmers’ agitation. There is already an attempt to make the tail wag the dog, and use the Red Fort incident to destroy the credibility of the entire movement. Politically, this strategy may prove dangerous as the movement has immense energy and the potential to grow further. The response from farmers who gathered outside Delhi on Republic Day was unprecedented with over 1 lakh lining up on the highways leading to Delhi. 

Yogendra Yadav, spokesperson for the 32-odd farmer unions, brought some much-needed perspective when he said that 90% of the farmers showed discipline and stuck to the peaceful programme chalked out in consultation with the police. However, he added, the state was looking for a “90 second visual byte to discredit the movement, which they seem to have got at the Red Fort.”

Yadav put out a video saying the movement would grow stronger from here and the farm leaders would learn from the mistakes made on Republic Day. He hinted that going forward, the core leadership would keep the agitation programme very tightly controlled and no quarter would be given to dissident groups who do not follow rules.

In this context, he named the splinter group Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee headed by Satnam Singh Pannu, who has been booked by Delhi Police for making a provocative speech to a group on the way to the Red Fort on 26 January. Significantly, Yadav said the Pannu group has been squatting on the Singhu border since November, but on the Delhi side of the barricade, with the police for company! The main farmer unions are sitting outside of the barricades guarding Delhi. Yadav also admitted the possibility of the movement having been infiltrated by state actors. One is not unfamiliar with these methods, but they are put to use with greater precision and ruthlessness under the current regime. The farmers’ agitation will have to deal with this as it works out a future strategy.

As for the Modi government, it must be very careful about how it deals with the farmers’ unions from here on. One reason why Modi had backed down and suggested a postponement of the implementation of the farm laws was that the agitation was perceived to be opening up the old political wounds of Punjab. This was mainly due to the Machiavellian narrative that the agitation was inspired by Khalistani elements. This was unleashed by the BJP initially and picked up by the government agencies subsequently. At a later stage , the RSS started worrying that a farmers’ agitation might become a Sikhs-versus-Delhi confrontation. Then a top RSS leader said that prolonged agitations are not good for society. The PM backed off a bit. But the Republic Day events may tempt the government to play the same game again. It would be a dangerous path to take. The Modi government must control its impulse to open up old wounds, as it is so prone to doing in the name of nationalism. 

PS: A collateral benefit of the Red Fort incident is that a Moghul monument is being seen by the Sangh Parivar as a symbol of national pride.


Senior Indian National Lok Dal leader and Ellenabad MLA Abhay Chautala has resigned from the Haryana Assembly to express solidarity with farmers protesting against the three farm laws. Chautala dared the Jannayak Janta Party MLAs, who staked a claim to the legacy of his grandfather Chaudhary Devi Lal, one of the tallest farmers’ leaders, to also resign. Abhay’s decision has put additional pressure on Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala to adopt a more aggressive attitude towards the BJP, the senior alliance partner in Haryana. 

Prime Number: 75%
The market share of Chinese smartphones in India in 2020, up from 71% in 2019, and the highest since at least 2014, according to research firm Counterpoint. Xiaomi Corp remained India’s top smartphone seller in 2020 with a 26% market share, slightly below 27% a year earlier. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics was the No 2 brand with a 21% share. They were followed by Vivo, Realme and Oppo ― all Chinese brands.

In UP, journalists get FIR for reporting a story

A district official has filed an FIR against three journalists for (accurately) reporting on students being forced to go ahead with a yoga and exercise session despite inadequate clothing against the biting cold. The government has denied their version, which governments do all the time, but has gone ahead and made a criminal case out of it too, which represents a new level of official muscle-flexing . But here is the footage. Earlier too, a journalist was booked for reporting on issues in the midday meal scheme. Journalist Prashant Kanojia spent two months in jail for a tweet

Eight in red in the economy tracker

India’s economic report card remained in bad shape in December, despite rising demand and higher production of goods and services, the latest update to Mint’s macro tracker shows. Of the 16 high-frequency indicators considered in the tracker, only six were in the green, or above their five-year average growth trend. Eight were in the red, or below the five-year average growth trend.

Police action against peaceful teachers in Tripura

Seventy teachers and 17 policemen were injured in Tripura’s capital Agartala early on Wednesday during a police crackdown on terminated schoolteachers holding a peaceful demonstration for the past 52 days seeking permanent jobs. A well-equipped police and Tripura State Rifles team reached the site at around 4 am and the area was vacated around 5.30 am. Over 300 teachers were detained because of the imposition of prohibitory orders. 

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Jayati Ghosh says those who celebrate stock market gains or higher profits of some large corporate houses will find out soon enough that these are ephemeral, if the vast bulk of the economy continues to stagnate or decline. The Finance Minister must change course and move to a more expansionary fiscal stance that prioritises employment generation and public service provision. 

  • Aniket Aga writes in Scientific American that five decades after the Green Revolution, we have come full circle, and it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition.

  • J Balasubramaniam  on the 150th year of Sooryodhayam, the first Dalit journal in Tamil ― and arguably, the first Dalit journal in India. 

Listen up

What do we know about what India’s lockdown meant for those without a home? And whom did the Modi government’s Covid-19 strategy fail to consider? Social activist Harsh Mander talks to Sandip Roy about how the pandemic has impacted the country’s most vulnerable, and about his own harrowing experience with Covid-19. 

Watch Out

A masterclass on the farmers’ movement, conducted by a farmer ― from technicals like “price discovery” to Bhagat Singh and the Meiji restoration. And the most important question of our age: “State ka koi religion hai kya?”

Kashmir’s cool igloo cafe, and why you mustn’t answer the phone when you’re live

A four-year-old girl who knew the alphabet by the time she was 14 months old has become one of the youngest members of Mensa. Dayaal Kaur, from Birmingham, took the test when she was three and was accepted on her fourth birthday. Dayaal was able to count to 20 before she was 16 months old, according to her father, Sarb Singh, 39. Singh, a health and wellbeing pastoral leader from Great Barr, Birmingham, said: “I knew she was an exceptional child. I am biased, but it was crazy how quickly she was able to learn the alphabet and read.” He added that her social skills and sense of humour were as “breathtaking” as her intelligence. “I could have a proper conversation with her when she was only two,” he said.

And on Wednesday, leading physician Dr KK Aggarwal answered his wife’s call about the vaccine while live on TV, and thus proved that humour is not dead even at this difficult time.  

After receiving messages of support and thanks from all over the world, he published a response, to the effect that laughter is the best medicine. 

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.