The India Cable: CBI Refutes UP on Hathras Rape, Farmers’ Fields Unmoved by Modi’s ‘Folded Hands’

Plus: Farmers protest Facebook, get their own newsletter, India falters on human freedoms, in Kashmir, India, Pak team up to play PUBG and Goa is low on beef but BJP-run Karnataka will help

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 18, 2020

Pratik Kanjilal

Protests by farmers in India reached Facebook’s doorstep in Silicon Valley on Thursday after dozens of people, most of them diaspora Sikhs, gathered outside the social network’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. They claim that Facebook and Instagram have been censoring content posted in support of Indian farmers and about the Sikh community. On Delhi’s borders, signalling their distrust of the coverage of their movement, the farmers now have their own media, a four-page newsletter appropriately named Trolley Times. The first issue is being distributed at the Singhu and Tikri borders today. 

A string of incidents of worker unrest, including at the Wistron Corp. and Toyota Kirloskar Motor Pvt. Ltd (TKM) factories in Karnataka, suggests a possible connection with newly amended labour and industrial laws. Six staffing firms that supplied manpower to the riot-hit iPhone factory near Bengaluru may face heavy fines and could be blacklisted for failing to pay wages to workers. Officers have said the violence appears to be spontaneous.

Suggesting the violence against BJP president JP Nadda in West Bengal was not spontaneous, the Centre has reassigned the three state police officers responsible for dereliction of duty to odd posts in Delhi. But Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee says she won’t let them go.

The head of the Indian Council for Medical Research, Balram Bhargava – a key face in the government’s coronavirus messaging – is now being treated for Covid at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. Just a day after a Delhi court acquitted 36 Tablighi Jamaat foreign nationals of all charges of violating Covid-19 guidelines and visa rules and suggested they were victims of a malicious prosecution, Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy said the Centre had taken action against them because they attempted to conceal infections and travelled to other parts of the country for religious teaching, leading to the spread of Covid-19. 

The Supreme Court has decided to push ahead with contempt charges against comic artists Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja (@sanitarypanels). The Honourable Court says their personal presence is not required, but issued notices earlier today. Here is what caused offence, in Kamra’s case: 

(Courtesy: Bar&Bench)

Tomorrow, Sonia Gandhi will meet some of the 23 senior party leaders who wrote to her in August seeking organisational change and a full-time leadership that is “visible” and “active”. This is the first gesture of accommodation since that dissent note, which was vilified by other leaders. The estimated cost of the Central Vista project, which will demolish almost 4.6 lakh square metres of heritage and build up 17.2 lakh square metres, has surged from Rs 11,794 crore to Rs 13,450 crore, and this is minus the PMO.  

After the Army Chief’s faux pas on Nepal in May, motormouth Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat now lectures Nepal that India’s goodwill comes with no strings attached. “Nepal is free to act independently in international affairs but must be vigilant and learn from Sri Lanka and other nations which have also signed agreements with other countries in the region,” the general said. Like his political bosses, he did not name China. 

Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant said his government is aware of a beef shortage in the state and would get supplies from Karnataka, another BJP-ruled state which has, incidentally, just passed a tough new law banning the slaughter of all bovines. The US has asked India to allow the exchange rate to move to reflect economic fundamentals and limit foreign exchange intervention. The US Treasury added India to the list of countries branded as currency manipulators. At present, one dollar is officially worth Rs 73.52, down from a high of Rs 76.5 in April 2020 but up from the 5-year low of Rs 66.33 in 2018.

The Press Information Bureau’s Fact Check has been questioned for attempting to discredit stories critical of the Modi government, but the government’s own Publications Division has come out to state that an Intelligence Bureau advertisement stamped as fake by the PIB Fact Check is genuine.

Asked about the next round of Sino-Indian military and diplomatic talks, the Foreign Ministry waffled. This is what Galwan, where the Indian Army lost 20 soldiers on June 15, looks like now. It’s a harsh landscape.

A debt-ridden businessman who disguised himself and joined the farmers’ protests at one of the Delhi border points to escape moneylenders was traced by police on Thursday. Praveen, a resident of Muradnagar, had left home on December 1 and did not return, police said. He was found at the Ghazipur-Ghaziabad border with Uttar Pradesh.


CBI confirms Hathras victim was raped

The gangrape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras is now back in the news with the Central Bureau of Investigation filing a chargesheet against the four caste Hindus named by the victim before she died. The chargesheet is significant because the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh, which rushed her cremation, had insisted the woman was not raped and blamed the allegations on an “international conspiracy” to foment caste riots in the state.


Tented field at Singhu unmoved

Prime Minister Modi made a “folded hands” appeal on Friday to protesting farmers to trust his government on the farm laws. Agriculture Minister NS Tomar wrote to farmers suggesting they were misled and must “trust” that the new laws would work for them. Home Minister Amit Shah added that Narendra Modiji and only Narendra Modiji was interested in their welfare and working to “double their incomes”.

A ‘tent city’ has come up at the Singhu border of the capital, for farmers who don’t have trolleys or tractors to shelter from the bitter cold. At least 150 tents have been sighted. And books are the new friends of the protesting farmers, who have been holding fort at Singhu for over 22 days. They are helping to keep monotony and boredom at bay.

Meanwhile, the heads of all the 15 khaps or traditional sub-caste councils in western Uttar Pradesh set off for Delhi’s Ghazipur border on Thursday afternoon with about 100 supporters each to join the protests. They have also decided to block all highways connecting Uttar Pradesh with Uttarakhand and Delhi tomorrow to mount pressure on the government.

Putting their weight firmly behind the agitating farmers, ten leading economists ― D Narsimha Reddy, Kamal Nayan Kabra, KN Harilal, Ranjit Singh Ghuman, Surinder Kumar, Arun Kumar, Rajinder Chaudhary, R Ramakumar, Vikas Rawal and Himanshu ― have written to the Agriculture Minister that the new farm laws are not in the interest of small and marginal farmers, and demanded their repeal.


From no internet to bad air, India’s lost generation

India may be looking at a lost generation as 80% of students couldn’t access online schooling during the lockdown, and many may not return to classrooms when they reopen, according to a recent study by Oxfam. That’s just one example of how the pandemic has exacerbated the country’s digital divide, worsening already stark levels of inequality and slowing economic growth. The government has projected an economic gain of $1 trillion from digitisation but access to online services only exacerbates socio-economic inequalities. And the price will be paid by half of the population of 1.3 billion people, which is under 25 years old.

Inequality impacts the young in other ways too. Air pollution in Delhi, a visible miasma that makes your eyes burn, your throat itch and your head pound, is more damaging if you are poorer and unprivileged. For a day, The New York Times measured the pollution exposure of two kids in Delhi, only one of whose families can afford air purifiers. It tells us of the difference inequality makes in life.


Human Freedom Index: India falls by 17 places

The Human Freedom Index presents the state of human freedom in the world based on a broad measure that encompasses personal, civil, and economic freedoms. India ranks 111 out of 162 countries on the index brought out by Cato and Fraser Institutes. India has fallen by 17 spots. Bhutan and, curiously, Sri Lanka, score higher on personal freedoms and New Zealand tops the list. The index finds that globally, human freedoms have declined across 76 indicators. Women‐​specific freedoms, measured by five indicators, were found to be least protected in the Middle East and North Africa, sub‐​Saharan Africa, and South Asia.


No volunteers for trial of India’s indigenous vaccine

AIIMS cannot find 1,500 volunteers needed for the Phase 3 trial of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. Officials say people are unwilling to participate because a vaccine would soon be available for all. Covaxin has been gripped by controversy over data use opacity and the much-publicised hospitalisation of Haryana minister Anil Vij for Covid-19, after he volunteered for a trial shot.


March to December, disaster 

On March 17, the Modi government very confidently told the Rajya Sabha that going by the data, the pandemic would not have “any adverse effect on the economy. However, a positive impact on India’s economy may arise from decline in global oil prices triggered by the outbreak of Covid-19.” But the Finance Minister has now said that “no amount of intervention by the government will be adequate” to deal with the economic crisis. 


India, Pak ally for PUBG

After the Modi government banned the PUBG mobile game, following a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh, it left Zeyan Shafiq’s e-sports team in Kashmir without players. So Shafiq, who is based in strife-torn Kashmir, did something very unusual: he reached across the border to Pakistan. Shafiq, 18, feared reprisals, but there were none. It resulted in an unheard-of alliance between Indian and Pakistani gamers, forged in one of the most dangerous regions in the world.


Silence, the court is in session

Can the farm laws be kept in abeyance while the Supreme Court hears the matter, Attorney General KK Venugopal was asked yesterday.

“Mr. Attorney, can you assure the court that you will not implement the law till we hear (and decide the case),” CJI Bobde queried. 

“No, farmers will not come for discussion then,” the AG said. The Bench was, however, not convinced.

“It is to facilitate discussion,” CJI Bode replied but did not press the issue. It ended there, in silence. 

When the apex court begins its hearings on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, will it make a similar request to the government – to put the law on hold? 


The Long Cable

‘India’s waning commitment to pluralism, equality and the rule of law at home’ casts doubts on its international credentials

Kate Sullivan de Estrada is Associate Professor in the International Relations of South Asia and Director of South Asian Studies, University of Oxford. Tanweer Alam spoke to her about India’s place in a post-pandemic world order. 

Alam: Post-pandemic and in the new world order, with a rising China, how do you see India’s current position as a rising power?

Sullivan: If we think of a rising power’s position in terms of its relative economic and military heft, India’s upward trajectory has taken a hit. India’s current economic slowdown (or collapse, or freefall, depending on the source) predates the pandemic, but the 2020-21 fiscal year looks particularly bad and will see a 10.3% contraction in GDP, according to the IMF. National security is now a top priority of the government and India is for the first time among the world’s top three military spenders, but tensions with China at the border have reinforced perceptions of India’s vulnerability to its northern neighbour.

Beyond these crude indicators, India’s support for established international rules and norms continues to matter to its global positioning. India’s significance in Europe, parts of Asia, North America and Australia has kept pace with its growing appetite for partnership in the Indo-Pacific, centred on a key strategic interest ― the containment of China ― and a (mostly) shared commitment to a rules-based international order. The downside is that India’s outward embrace of liberal international values now contrasts starkly with the current government’s waning commitment to pluralism, equality and the rule of law at home.

Alam: India has historically sought status and recognition on global platforms, which has continued under the present BJP government. Has India’s status risen after 2014, or has it been eroded?

Sullivan: India is still attempting to break into two significant global clubs: the elite permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and the larger but legitimacy-enhancing Nuclear Suppliers Group. Neither attempt has seen much success, especially with China as a common barrier to entry. India’s ambitions for higher status and recognition have hardly dampened, though. Seeking new multilateral vehicles and partners, the BJP government launched the International Solar Alliance in 2015 and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure in 2019. Both remain nascent. With India’s two-year tenure as an elected member of the UNSC set to commence next month, plus plans to host the G20 Summit in 2023, India’s commitment to the reform of multilateralism will again be projected strongly across multiple forums. It may be India’s time to shine once more on the world stage, but this will be less an achievement of the present government and more of a culmination of longstanding efforts shepherded by India’s unstinting foreign policy bureaucracy.

Alam: India’s democratic decline and human rights violations, particularly in Kashmir and with Indian Muslims, have attracted a lot of adverse global attention. How is it likely to affect India’s standing in the comity of nations?

Sullivan: If India is to be a leading power, it needs followers. In the region, India cannot hope to match China’s investment capacities nor its efficiencies. That leaves reputation. Earlier this year, former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed that “India represents the largest ideological existential challenge to China because of its vibrant democracy.” It is true that India has long served as a role model of a developing society and economy able to reconcile liberal democracy with diversity, and that this has been its chief comparative advantage vis-à-vis China. However, recent developments in India’s domestic political space ― growing religious and other forms of bigotry and the suppression of criticism and dissent ― have put these credentials in doubt.

Alam: The British PM has been invited as chief guest at the forthcoming Republic Day celebrations. Why is that so important for India today? Is it connected to Brexit?

Sullivan: At the moment, almost everything in the UK is connected in one way or another to Brexit. The UK’s exit from the EU is a moment of national rupture and redefinition that the last British invitee to India’s Republic Day, Prime Minister John Major (who attended in 1993), described last month as “the worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime”. Amid domestic concern over the government’s stewardship of Brexit and the UK’s future, there is little doubt that high-level visits to India, including that of Boris Johnson in late January, create an impression of global outreach. But beyond the optics on the UK side, there is substance. Several important issues are on the table between the two countries ― trade, defence, education, climate, health, migration and mobility.

Another backdrop to the uptick in relations is the accelerated strategic commitment from both sides to the geospatial construct of the Indo-Pacific. Provocations on the Sino-Indian border have led to some redefinition of Indian priorities in the wider Indo-Pacific region in 2020. Conspicuously, the Indo-Pacific Quad grouping has acquired a military hue through efforts towards greater interoperability and the inclusion of Australia, along with Quad partners India, the US and Japan, in the Malabar naval exercise. For its part, the UK has been tilting ― to use the British strategic (and somewhat colonially flavoured) term ― ‘East of Suez’ for at least the last decade, and is gearing up for a larger military footprint. Last month, Johnson pledged the largest increase in the UK’s year-on-year defence spending since the Cold War. Late to commit to the terminology of the Indo-Pacific, the UK’s current foreign office restructuring is likely to reflect its growing Indo-Pacific focus in some way, just as India’s did in 2016. Both sides will be looking for ways to strengthen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, with an initial focus potentially on the western Indian Ocean.


Reportedly

Changes in Washington, DC, are not to the Modi government’s liking. Donald Trump lost the presidency despite two massive rallies by PM Modi, and now the Democrats are placing people critical of the Modi government’s policies in important positions. Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley in the US House of Representatives, has been named Democratic Vice Chair of the Congressional India Caucus. He is already Deputy Whip of the Progressive Caucus, and was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.


Deep Dive

RTI: the backstory

Fifteen years after it became law, the Right to Information has become the most sophisticated weapon in the hands of activists, journalists and others working to make governments accountable. Not only does it force the state to part with information which sheds light on its functioning, motives and inefficiencies, even evasions and denials have diagnostic value ― the PM CARES fund has invited suspicion by stonewalling RTI queries with a technicality. But the system is also layered ― PM CARES has been outflanked by queries made to Indian embassies, which have confirmed that diplomatic resources were used to market this trust. 

Himanshu Jha, who teaches at the South Asia Institute of the Department of Political Science, Heidelberg University, shows that the formation of the RTI system is similarly layered, created by the interplay of social, political and external forces which have operated since Independence. While the RTI movement is perceived to have been driven by a small number of activists, he explores the social and political backdrop in a new book, Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India

At Independence, India inherited a culture of secrecy which was more suited to empire than to democracy, but the rest of the world was discovering the virtue of openness. But by the 1960s, perhaps it looked like Amitabh Kant’s “too much democracy” and the government tightened the Official Secrets Act in 1967. The movement picked up again in the 1990s, and helped along by similar transparency legislation overseas, the Act was legislated in 2005. 

An interplay of international exemplars and a domestically felt need for accountability has made this possible. The public, once happy to be passive and trusting beneficiaries of the patronage of an opaque state presumed to be benign, now claims a role in national affairs and constantly scrutinises the government, to the irritation of the party in office, and to the benefit of democracy. Jha traces this transition, and the domestic and international forces which made it inevitable. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan writes in Natureon a year of loss and learning. She reflects on the agency’s challenges and achievements as it navigates the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Saving the mandiis a focus of the protests in Punjab. Its importance in agricultural life, as it has developed over the past half-century in the state, cannot be overstated, writes Shreya Sinha.

  • Priya Ramani profiles Rachita Taneja, the artist whose toons urged the Attorney General to recommend contempt proceedings since they are “intended to denigrate” and “deliberately intended to shake the confidence that the people have” in the Supreme Court.


Listen up

In Tony K Stewart’s book Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination (University of California Press, 2019), we are taken “to the imaginal realms of ogres, fairies, Sufi pirs and piranis and Hindu gods and goddess”. Here, the Vanderbilt University professor of religious studies speaks to Shobhana Xavier on his book and the stories he found.


Watch Out

Farm Laws Wapas Jaao is a stirring Punjabi adaptation of the legendary Italian protest anthem Bella Ciao, in the powerful voice of Poojan Sahil, who is a mathematics teacher in everyday life.


The pitch has turned

Now, this is cricket. On a snow pitch in Kashmir.


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.