The India Cable: BJP Welcomes, then Rebuffs Shaheen Bagh Shooter, Kerala Assembly Rejects Farm Laws

Plus: Jio makes domestic voice calls free, Nagaland disturbed area for six months more, R-Day to have smaller show, Matuas ask about CAA, and the Sarayu runs under Ram temple 

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 31, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

The Kerala assembly met today and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the Centre’s farm laws. Even the single BJP MLA went along. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan tabled a resolution to reject the Centre’s recent farm laws in the special session convened despite futile attempts by the governor to raise obstacles. 

Invoking a 2003 joint declaration signed by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his counterpart Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Beijing has reminded New Delhi that it had already recognised Tibet Autonomous Region as part of the territory of the neighbouring communist country. This was part of the Chinese embassy’s unsolicited and unwarranted advice to the Indian media to look at the economic and social progress of the Tibet Autonomous Region objectively, do more to help China-India bilateral relations move forward instead of playing the ‘Tibet card’ to meddle in China’s internal affairs and further damage bilateral relations.

Kapil Gurjar, the 25-year-old man arrested  for firing at least two shots at the Shaheen Bagh protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on February 1, joined the BJP’s Ghaziabad unit on Wednesday. Hours later, though, the party backtracked and revoked his membership, claiming it had not been aware of his criminal antecedents. Were they living under a rock in 2020?

In Kashmir, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has warned that the Centre has “weaponised” the Enforcement Directorate against its political opponents. 

Bongaon BJP MP Shantanu Thakur, elected representative of the Matuas, a religious sect comprising ‘lower’ caste Hindus who migrated to West Bengal from Bangladesh, has said that Hindu refugees from the neighbouring country are waiting to hear from Union Home Minister Amit Shah when the CAA will be implemented. The BJP’s national leadership appears to be trying to duck the issue of citizenship for Hindu migrants as Assam and West Bengal head for elections ― a promise that the saffron camp had made before last year’s general elections to woo the vote bank of Matuas. At the time, Narendra Modi had travelled to Bongaon to meet Thakur’s grandmother, the matriarch of the Matuas, who vote in a bloc.

The Assam Repealing Bill has been passed by the state assembly, and will convert state-run madrasas into formal schools, and turn Sanskrit tols (schools for learning orally, by rote) into research centres affiliated to a Sanskrit university in Nalbari. Privately run madrasas will not be affected. The BJP and Congress both claimed that candidates backed by them were winning in Karnataka gram panchayats even as the State Election Commission (SEC) took exception to news channels projecting victories by party affiliation.

The Naveen Patnaik government’s decision to provide reservation to government school students in government engineering and medical colleges in Odisha has sparked off a controversy. The BJP and Congress have asked the government to clarify its motives.

India’s  suspension of international flights, which started on March 23, has now been extended till January 31 after the discovery of a Covid-19 variant in the UK. Special flights operate under bilateral air bubble arrangements with 24 countries including the US, the UK, the UAE, Kenya, Bhutan and France. Indian student groups in the UK have urged the Indian government to consider emergency travel options in extremely exceptional cases.

The Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple’s Melsanthi (head priest) VK Jayaraj Potty has been quarantined after three of his aides tested Covid-19 positive, hours before the second phase of the pilgrimage season was to begin. Since the Melsanthi is not supposed to leave the temple premises by tradition, the temple authorities are concerned about the development. If he tests positive, arrangements are likely to be made to treat him within the temple premises.

And with TRAI ending the Interconnect Usage Charges regime tomorrow, Reliance Jio is making domestic voice calls to all networks free

Farmers tick off ministers, but may share langar

The sixth round of meetings between farmer leaders and the Modi government concluded on Wednesday, with the next round of parleys slated for January 4. The main demand of repeal of the new farm laws remains unresolved. The government has agreed to address farmers’ concerns about the Electricity Bill and exclusion of farmers from the Air Quality Management Ordinance in force in the National Capital Region (in plainspeak, they won’t be penalised for burning stubble). Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar confirmed that the two sides have arrived at an agreement on the two issues. He said discussions on the three agriculture laws and guaranteed prices for produce under the Minimum Support Price scheme will continue in the next meeting.

Ministers may share lunch with the farmers for better optics ― in earlier sessions, the farmers had pointedly brought their own langar ― but their attempts to school the protesting farmers fell flat. The ministers tried to explain the benefits of selling produce to private firms and corporates but the farmer leaders gave it back: “Initially, Ola-Uber gave big benefits to drivers but cheated them once they had a monopoly.”

A post shared by Saahil Murli Menghani (@saahilmurlimenghani)

The Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress on Wednesday appealed to farmers to hold direct talks personally with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as extended dialogue with Union ministers is futile. But the PM was more concerned about the damage to infrastructure (read Jio’s mobile towers) than the issues raised by the farmers.

Addressing the US House of Representatives on Tuesday, Congressman Andy Levin said it is heartening to watch democracy in action in India and the popular support the farmers’ movement is garnering throughout the nation and the global Indian diaspora. “While I believe the Indian government should have consulted meaningfully with farmers before passing these laws, I welcome their efforts to engage with the protesters to ensure that legislation that affects these communities reflects their input and interests as well,” Levin said. The lawmaker from Michigan’s 9th Congressional district also said, “On behalf of my constituents who represent the vibrant Indian diaspora community and have rallied in support of these farmers, I call on the Indian government to respect the vital right to peaceful protest and to engage in good-faith talks to ensure farmers’ livelihoods are preserved.”

AP High Court incensed with SC collegium

In an unprecedented order, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has expressed its strong disapproval at the Supreme Court collegium in relation to the transfer of two Chief Justices, and also castigated the YS Jaganmohan Reddy-led regime in the state for its attempts to undermine the High Court. A plea presented on behalf of the state government for the recusal of an AP High Court judge led to scathing observations against the Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh, and orders for the registration of a complaint to initiate criminal prosecution. 

The court took exception to the manner in which the Supreme Court collegium transferred two High Court Chief Justices ― Justice RS Chauhan of the Telangana High Court and Justice JK Maheshwari of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The court noted that transfer orders came immediately after Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy wrote a letter to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde criticising the functioning of the AP High Court. The chief minister got what he wanted because the High Court was seized of the issue of speeding up criminal cases against MPs and MLAs, and there are a slew of such cases pending against YS Jaganmohan Reddy, the court said.

Vaccine authorisation draws closer

The Subject Expert Committee in the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation will meet on New Year’s Day to consider the emergency use authorisation request of Pfizer, Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech. Further time was requested by Pfizer at the meeting held yesterday. Additional data and information presented by SII and Bharat Biotech Pvt. Ltd. was perused and analysed. Though the UK has approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, Indian regulators have asked for more data from the Serum Institute of India, the domestic manufacturer. Serum Institute claims that it has readied millions of doses for rollout the moment emergency use is approved.

And quiet flows the Sarayu

The Ram temple trust in Ayodhya has asked the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to suggest better models for the foundation of the temple as a stream of the Sarayu river has been found flowing beneath it, sources said on Tuesday. The construction committee of the temple, chaired by former principal secretary to the PM Nripendra Misra, held deliberations over the matter here on Tuesday. It was realised that the existing model for the foundation of the temple was not feasible. Remember, this is the very spot the Hindutva groups had said was the birthplace of Rama.

Written off, off and away

A single image tells us everything we need to know about loan write-offs since the Modi government came to power six years ago.

Twitter avatar for @Dinesh_UnniDinesh Unnikrishnan @Dinesh_Unni… Indian banks wrote off loans worth around Rs 8,83,168 crore in the last ten years, a significant chunk of which came from government-owned banks @RBI #loanwriteoffs @ChairmanIba @ChVenkatachalam Image

A disturbing development

All of Nagaland has again been declared a “disturbed area” for six more months, enabling the continuation of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which empowers security forces to conduct operations anywhere and make searches and arrests without a warrant. AFSPA has been in force in the state since 1958, and was not withdrawn even after a framework agreement was signed in Delhi on August 3, 2015 by NSCN-IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah and government interlocutor RN Ravi in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The peace process has been stuck for some time as the NSCN-IM has been pressing for a separate flag and Constitution, a demand rejected by the central government.

The Long Cable

In 2021, much will remain of 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

India has a new seasonal ritual. Every winter, thousands of people who feel cheated or threatened by the Central government camp out in Delhi. Their protests inspire others, elsewhere in the country, with their determination in the face of a government which thinks it can browbeat or vilify anyone. 

Last winter, it was the protests against new, exclusionary citizenship norms in Shaheen Bagh, which would not have ended, despite lethal violence instigated by the political right (to call the violence ‘riots’ would be to give riots a bad name). Shaheen Bagh was ended by public anxieties about the pandemic, and the world’s most stringent lockdown. Before the movement ended, it had inspired sit-ins in a number of other cities. And significantly, protesters from Punjab had arrived en masse to set up a langar to feed the people in Shaheen Bagh. 

This winter, farmers from the surrounding states have laid siege to Delhi over new farm laws. Full marks to the ruling party and some sections of the media for trying, but it is much harder to vilify Punjabi farmers than Muslims. The Prime Minister is forced to talk turkey with them. And the langar has become the engine of protest, churning out pizzas, rotis and revolutionary song. 

A post shared by tanushree bhasin (@ichakdaana)

Next winter, perhaps some other group which feels wronged by government policy will be agitating in the capital again, or blocking the highways leading to it. And it’s a safe bet that some people from Punjab will be running langars to keep them fed and warm. We are relieved to leave 2020 behind us, but some of its highlights will stay with us. 

The mask, for instance, is here to stay because our population will remain insufficiently vaccinated through 2021. We wait breathlessly for the Serum Institute of India to get clearance for emergency use of its vaccine candidate but for the majority, it won’t make a difference. The most optimistic vaccine production estimates are in millions of doses, while India needs billions. It is generally overlooked that everyone needs two shots. Also, the emergence of a highly infective strain in the UK cautions planners to prepare for future variants against which present vaccines may be useless. 

Also, since candidates have not been tested as extensively as earlier vaccines, the knowledge base is limited. They would reduce the incidence of severe morbidity and mortality, but transmission may continue unabated. Therefore, until vaccine coverage reaches the point where herd immunity can be counted on to finish the job ― 70-80% of the population is a reasonable figure ― masks will remain essential. 

Along with the pandemic, changes in public behaviour will survive well into 2021. The remote worker and the gig economy are here to stay. Desks and workstations will be reduced and meeting rooms will expand ― or maybe not, because the adoption of the cloud and videoconferencing have leapfrogged several years in a few months. Some sectors where face-to-face interaction is central would have to find a line of best fit. Schools must reopen because online teaching is not a substitute for the physical classroom, but digital instruction will remain a strong component of the time table, reducing hours spent in school. 

But public events which are more promotional than social are done for. By  2019, literary festivals had proliferated so much that a Twitter discussion estimated that you could keep hopping from one to the next all year, without ever going home. Now that publishers see that they get bang for buck much more efficiently with online events, litfests won’t be back in a hurry. 

There could be a couple of unpleasant developments, too. Vaccine delivery could reaffirm the hierarchies of society, and sunder the haves from the have-nots all over again. Priority lists are being drawn up, and the vaccination programme will not proceed in the manner of the universal coverage drives that the public is accustomed to. In the Bihar elections, the BJP had promised free shots to everyone in the state, reducing the people of all other states to second-class citizens by implication. And anyway, the well-off have the option of travelling overseas to beat the queue. 

Finally, pandemic restrictions, while reasonable, amount to a sort of public-spirited Section 144, which is very convenient for repressive governments. Until the farmers’ blockade of Delhi, Covid-19 curbs had prevented groups from organising to express dissent. Now, that psychological bond has been broken and a year on, citizens may hit the streets again to maintain the tradition of winter protests against the Central government in Delhi. And they will face curbs under the guise of Covid-19 guidelines, just like the farmers have done this year. 

BJP carelessly loses mayors

R-Day: Smaller, shorter, fewer

The Republic Day celebrations at Rajpath will see restrictions, including smaller marching contingents, a shorter distance for the parade and fewer spectators in view of the pandemic. Around 25,000 spectators will be allowed to attend, as against a normal crowd of around 100,000. Children below 15 years will not be allowed entry. The size of the marching contingents is likely to be brought down from around 144 people in each to around 96. And the parade will start from Vijay Chowk and end at the National Stadium instead of the Red Fort.

Families of slain “militants” protest

The families of “militants” killed in a gunfight in the Lawaypora area on the outskirts of Srinagar on Wednesday contested the army and the police ‘encounter’ claim  and said that they were civilians, and not ultras. The families of Aijaz Ahmad Ganie, Ather Mushtaq Wani, both from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, and Zubair Ahmad Lone from neighbouring Shopian district, assembled outside Srinagar’s Police Control Room and staged a protest. They claimed that the three weren’t militants, and two of them had left their homes only yesterday on work.

Prime number: 37
That's the number of women serving in the country’s premier investigative agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is just 4.64% of its total strength of 796. The other premier agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is no better with 475 women, forming 7.96% of its strength of 5,964. According to the Data on Police Organisations, there are 2.15 lakh women out of 20.91 lakh personnel in the force, which is 10.30%, way behind the target of 33 per cent set by the Centre. 

Smile, you’re on Big Brother’s camera

There are currently 16 facial recognition tracking (FRT) systems in active use by Central and state agencies across India for surveillance, security or authentication of identity. Another 17 are being installed by different government departments. Rapid deployment of these systems by the government without any law to govern their use poses a huge threat to privacy rights and freedom of speech and expression.

Pak woman heads Indian village

A Pakistani woman who had come to India 35 years ago for a family wedding in Etah district of UP is in trouble after she took up the post of ‘officiating village head’, and her credentials were disclosed by local villagers. Bano Begum came to India from Karachi to attend a relative’s wedding in Etah district, never to return. She tied the knot with one Akhtar Ali and had been living here since then by getting her long-term visa extended time and again.

Moreover, she participated in the rural local body polls and was elected a member of her village panchayat in 2015. Now, with her identity disclosed, the District Panchayati Raj Officer has ordered an FIR be lodged against Bano.

Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • J&K polls have not gone according to plan for the BJP. This has implications for the rest of India. Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) wonders if the DDC model could now be extended to all of India in order to undermine state governments.

  • The spirit of Parliament is in its healthy functioning, not in brick and mortar, writes Yashwant Sinha. “We are today governed by rulers who have little use or patience with the conventions, practices and procedures of our parliamentary system developed over the decades.”

  • Krishan Chopra recounts the experience of producing the book that set targets for 2020, written by the man who became President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam.

  • On the J&K polls, David Devadas explains why the security forces’ links with politics is disturbing

  • Generosity, with heels dug in, is what can lift the darkness that was cast upon us during the year, writes Anurag Behar.

  • PM Narendra Modi has arrived at that familiar crossroad when a ‘strong’ leader begins finding democracy a somewhat tiresome, cumbersome millstone, writes Harish Khare.

Listen up

Michiel Baas, the author of Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class, has spent a decade studying gyms, trainers and bodybuilders, and finds in them a new way to investigate India. In this discussion with Lakshita Malik, he walks us through the homes and workspaces of these men ― yes, they are almost all men  ― to bodybuilding competitions and also into their most intimate worlds of ambitions, desires and struggles.

Watch Out

The Indian History Congress holds its annual conclave online this time, full of rich lectures and assertions against the monolithic versions of Indian history which are being propagated, and a call for a scientific approach to the study of our past. 

Watch the two-day programme which ended yesterday. The beginning features ambient noise, but the disturbance goes away soon.

In dog we trust

A 50-year-old farmer in a village in Chhindwara district of Madhya Pradesh, apprehensive that his dog might not be cared for after his death, has named the canine and his wife as his legal heirs in his will. Omnarayan Verma of Badiwara village in Chaurai tehsil made the will about a week back as his ‘first and last will’. According to the will, his legal heirs include his wife Champa Bai, 47, and Jackie, his 11-month-old dog.

And EP Unny picks his most telling cartoons from a bizarre year, which he is very happy to bin.

That’s it for today, and this year. We wish you a safe and healthy 2021. We’ll be back with you on Monday, in the new year, i.e. January 4, 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.