The India Cable: Centre’s Aggression Backfires, Farmers’ Ranks Swell After ‘Dirty' Tactics

Plus: Kisan Mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar, 18,000 tractors head for Delhi, Arnab sues former acolyte Navika, Jaishankar's 8-fold peace plan, R-Day float with familiar sage-with-peacock wins 1st prize

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 29, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

This morning, 18 Opposition parties boycotted the President’s address to the joint sitting of Parliament on the first day of the Budget session ― the NCP, Shiv Sena, Trinamool Congress, DMK, National Conference, SP, RJD, CPI(M), CPI, IUML, RSP, PDP, MDMK, Kerala Congress, AIUDF, the Shiromani Akali Dal, AAP and the Indian National Congress. They object to the passing of the farm bills, which were rammed through Parliament by brute majority. Here is a note comparing the announcements made in the President’s address last year with the progress made on those items. 

In the final weeks of the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the movement was delegitimised by arguments that it was blocking traffic, and a hazard to public health and safety. Yesterday, in a faithful replay, self-proclaimed ‘local’ residents (actually Hindu Sena) began to protest against the encampment at the Singhu border of Delhi, and one day of violence by breakaway factions of the movement was held up as a public security risk. Someone forgot to tell them to bring a new slogan book: cries of Jai Shri Ram could also be heard.

And yet, the might of the State may have met its match. The Punjab Kisan Union estimates that 18,000 tractors are converging on Delhi from Punjab, UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, in response to the government’s orders to vacate protest sites around Delhi. When Rakesh Tikait wept on national TV, the number of protesters actually swelled at night, despite orders to vacate. The Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar, which began this morning, is reported to have drawn almost 1 lakh farmers.  

Following the resignation of Indian National Lok Dal MLA Abhay Chautala from the Haryana Assembly, senior Haryana leader Rampal Majra has quit the BJP in support of the farmers’ agitation, alleging that the government had tried to sabotage it. Until 2019, Majra was with the INLD.   

“The public’s faith in the judiciary is founded on its own actions, not on criticism about it.” Comedian Kunal Kamra has refused to apologise to the Supreme Court for being in contempt and has filed an affidavit. Hearings began today. The bail plea of Pinjra Tod activist Natasha Narwal, booked under UAPA in a conspiracy case, has been turned down. AAP, the party with a difference, has reportedly amended its constitution to allow supremo Arvind Kejriwal to remain convenor beyond two terms. The party is yet to confirm the change officially. 

Bloomberg reports that the Modi government is expected to forecast 11% growth in FY22 after an estimate of a 7.7% contraction in GDP in FY21. But since the government has “updated” (actually, massaged) the numbers, the data is unreliable. The Economic Survey is out, with a brief nod to agriculture.

Indian punters have joined in the movement to game Wall Street, betting against big hedge funds to the tune of Rs 60-65 crore to help send up the stock of little-known video game store chain GameStop by about 700%. A Reddit discussion group and a tweet from Elon Musk had started the fun. Matt Taibbi has an excellent piece on the big picture.

And the UP tableau for the Republic Day parade, depicting the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, and Valmiki composing the Ramayana flanked by peacocks strutting their stuff, has won the first prize. The float may be driven back to Lucknow, stopping at intervening towns for the edification of citizens. They would marvel at the translocation of the sage-with-peacocks motif from the TV screen to the dusty highway. 


Ghazipur swells, Singhu tense

Tensions are running high at the Ghazipur border in Uttar Pradesh, where protesting farmers have been asked to vacate the site. Their power and water supply was disconnected by the administration, amidst a huge police presence. Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait’s defiance appears to have energised supporters in western UP and Haryana and could have wider political implications. Numbers have since swelled at the protest site and the police beat a hasty retreat last night. A BJP worker was allegedly caught by the farmers and handed over to the police after he tried to cause mischief at the site. UP and MP Police have filed an FIR against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, veteran bilingual journalist Mrinal Pande, TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai and Caravan magazine, charging them with sedition. The Editors Guild has condemned the move and called for the FIRs to be withdrawn immediately.

At the Singhu border, Delhi Police have dug up the road and erected barriers to deny the farmers direct access to Delhi. News outlets including NDTV, ANI, Times Now and News18 reported that “locals” held a protest against farmers. They failed to highlight that the demonstration was backed by fringe outfit Hindu Sena. A masked mob reminiscent of the JNU attack was back this afternoon and pelted sticks and stones at the stage, despite massive police presence. The police, more active in stopping Delhi government’s water supply to farmers, was forced to do a mild baton charge and fire tear gas shells.


Only herd, no immunity

India is nowhere close to achieving herd immunity against Covid-19 despite a few pockets in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune reporting 50-60% of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Deccan Herald reports that the Indian Council of Medical Research’s third nationwide serosurvey found that less than 25% of India’s population has been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The agency is yet to make the survey results public, but the importance of the mass vaccination programme is established. 

During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, medical researchers had predicted that herd immunity for Covid-19 is likely to occur when nearly 70% of the population is infected. Two previous rounds of nationwide serosurveys conducted by ICMR found that Covid-19 infection prevalence had increased from 0.7% in May to 7% in August last year. 

The government has extended the suspension of scheduled international flights until February 28. 


Economic Survey hints at reasonable fiscal expansion

The annual Economic Survey reiterated growth shrinkage of 7.7% in 2020-21 but expected a smart recovery of 11% for 2021-22. Many experts feel the service sector must return to normalcy for this to happen. Tourism, transport, restaurants, hotels and recreation are still badly hit in a K-shaped recovery, where some sectors are improving but others are down.

The survey hinted at reasonable fiscal expansion to boost growth and employment. This should help because India has been most conservative about providing a direct fiscal stimulus by putting substantial money in the hands of the people. It said India has all-time high forex reserves of $580 billion and a likely current account surplus by the end of March of 2% of GDP, which should satisfy credit rating agencies about India’s creditworthiness and ability to create more fiscal space for future expansion. 

But some economists might argue that a current account surplus cannot be celebrated because during a recession, it is a sign of import compression caused by a global demand slump. We need a moderate current account deficit driving higher import-led investments. The survey has also committed to more robust privatisation of PSUs to raise resources. But there is not much demand from global companies to buy blue chip Indian PSUs like BPCL, Concor and the Shipping Corporation of India.

Health gets a special mention in a pandemic year ― the survey seeks a major boost to infrastructure and argues for a regulator, mainly for hospitals, which is clearly overdue. There is a special mention about how agriculture was a saviour in the midst of a pandemic and India’s farmers achieved record food production. Naturally, the survey does not mention that they have been protesting over the past two months for the withdrawal of the new farm laws, and are being treated quite shabbily by the Centre. 


Healthcare workers hesitate about vaccination

Jharkhand, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra  have less than or just about 20% of their healthcare workers vaccinated against Covid-19. The trend is worrisome as Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have the highest health worker density in India. Even as the Covid-19 vaccination numbers crossed the 25 lakh mark on Thursday afternoon, nearly two weeks after the drive was launched, vaccine hesitancy, especially among health workers, has emerged as a major concern. 

The vaccine shots officially purchased so far would cover only a small section of the 3 crore frontline and healthcare workers with whom the government has begun its inoculation programme. These 6 crore doses would cost the government Rs 1,200 crore for a little over 2% of India’s population, plus the cost of delivery. Does the Modi government have the fiscal resources for the task?


Three mutuals, eight propositions

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on Thursday gave a rather comprehensive speech on the state of India-China relations since the Ladakh border crisis began last May, enumerating that “the three mutuals – mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests – are its determining factors.” He also formulated eight propositions to “seek proper guidance that would be to the benefit of both nations.” The numbered list would sound very familiar to the leadership of the Chinese Communist party, which is very fond of such things. But will it lead to a breakthrough in the crisis, or even urge them to follow the second proposition ― “the LAC must be strictly observed and respected”?

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union staged a protest in Itanagar against China establishing a village in Upper Subansiri district, and demanded that the Modi government must “act tough”. The government remains silent.


Ansari wouldn’t help Modi pass bills

In his forthcoming memoir, ‘By Many a Happy Accident’, former Vice President of India Hamid Ansari talks about his journey from the foreign service to the vice presidency. Ansari feels that Prime Minister Narendra was selective in his reference to the outgoing Vice President’s work, and his stint as chairman of the Rajya Sabha.“An expression of this was conveyed to me authoritatively, and somewhat unusually, when one day PM Modi walked into my Rajya Sabha office unscheduled.” Hamid Ansari quotes PM Modi as saying, “There are expectations of higher responsibilities for you but you are not helping me.” Hamid Ansari responded saying his work in the Rajya Sabha, and outside, was public knowledge. Ansari then quotes PM Modi, “Why are bills not being passed in the din?” Ansari replied that the Leader of the House (Arun Jaitley) and other BJP leaders ( in Opposition in 2007-2014, when the UPA was in power) had appreciated Ansari’s ruling that no bills would be passed in the din and that normal procedures of obtaining consent would be observed.


The Long Cable

Journalism and free speech amidst fear of the midnight knock 

Siddharth Varadarajan

Just as fascism came and comes in all shapes and sizes, the intimations and early manifestations of fascism can vary from place to place and time to time.

What all fascisms have in common, however, is the tailoring of government policy to suit corporate capital and the use of repressive measures to prevent – or contain – any organised protests against the regime.

The hasty passage of the controversial farm laws last year is an example of the Modi government’s eagerness to jettison even the procedural aspects of parliamentary democracy in its haste to press ahead with its economic agenda. And the manner in which protesting farmers were first traduced, then prevented from protesting peacefully and finally subjected to arrest threats and even violence illustrates the regime’s unwillingness to be challenged. 

In India, however, there is a third element to the fascist model which is now amply evident – to use criminal charges to silence the voices of journalists, intellectuals and academics, artists, students and civil society in general. From the BJP-led regime’s point of view, the more you fill people with the dread of the midnight knock for something they may have said or reported or tweeted, the less likely it is that they will say things that go against you or that you don’t like.

The past month has seen movie makers and actors facing the prospect of arrest for the web-series, Tandav. One comedian, Munawwar Farooqui, has been in jail without bail for jokes he never even cracked while another two, Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja, may be jailed if the Supreme Court finds them guilty of contempt. The Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan continues to languish in an Uttar Pradesh prison on terrorism charges for attempting to cover the Hathras gang-rape story.

However, the latest example of this approach is perhaps the most outrageous. The police in UP and Madhya Pradesh have registered cases of sedition against the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, senior journalists Mrinal Pande, Rajdeep Sardesai and Zafar Agha, and the editor, publisher and owner of Caravan magazine on the basis of a semi-literate and incomplete private complaint that these individuals had, through their use of Twitter on January 26, instigated an uprising against the government.

The issue at hand, clearly, is the BJP’s anger at the allegation that a farmer had been shot and killed by Delhi Police during the Tractor Parade against the farm laws that day. Eyewitnesses said on camera that the farmer had been shot and many reporters on the scene, including Sardesai, had passed this unverified information on. Most attributed the claim to the farmers, others reported it in a more direct manner and most of those who tweeted or carried this news also quickly flagged the police version which followed soon after – that the farmer was killed by his own rash driving.

This is not the place to go into the circumstances surrounding the farmer’s death – the parents of the dead man insist their son was indeed shot. But assuming the claim was false, it is astonishing to see the police in UP and MP trying to make this a criminal case of sedition.

The Supreme Court has laid down over the years what sedition entails, and tweeting news – even if false – that a farmer was shot and killed by the police does not even remotely meet the criteria. 

It is worth noting that most of these assaults on the freedom of expression come with plausible deniability for the State. Private complaints are often instigated or given undue recognition so that the ruling establishment can claim that the ‘police are only doing their job’. The courts then pick up the baton by denying bail or allowing the police to needlessly prolong these frivolous cases. For those named in these malicious FIRs, the best they can hope for – if they are lucky – is bail and then an exemption from physical appearance, even if the proceedings themselves drag on for years. And the worst – incarceration or never knowing when a posse of policemen will turn up at their front door.

The individuals targeted may not get intimidated but the purpose is to ensure obedience from millions of others who may share their views but who will now fear the consequences of speaking or writing or tweeting or even liking a tweet or post. This is the new normal in India today.


Reportedly

Arnab Goswami lashed out against ‘anti-nationals’ through his Nationalist Collective, and we were amused. He is now going after journalists with defamation suits. Republic TV has filed a criminal defamation case in a Delhi court against Times Now anchor and former colleague Navika Kumar, whom he had mentored, for making allegedly defamatory remarks even before the TRP scam has reached the courtroom. The Indian Express and Newsminute, too, have been issued legal notices for their coverage. Rajdeep Sardesai has been taken off the air by India Today for two weeks for his tweets on Republic Day, and has been fined a month’s salary, too. 


Prime Number: 86

India’s rank in Transparency International’s corruption perception index in 2020, down six places from the 80th rank in 2019. 

Evidence against Munawar is a joke. It’s on the complainants

Three complainants who contradict each other, quote old jokes as evidence and make claims absent in the FIR ― that is the ‘evidence’ submitted by Indore police to the High Court, which rejected Munawar Faruqui and Nalin Yadav’s bail plea on Thursday.


Deep Dive

India Justice Report 2020

As courts went virtual in response to the pandemic, 40% of jails had no video conferencing facilities, finds the India Justice Report 2020 (a summary is here). Maharashtra is the best state in terms of justice delivery, and Uttar Pradesh is the worst for two consecutive years. These findings come soon after the Rule of Law Index 2020 ranked India 69th among 128 countries, below Sri Lanka and Nepal. 


Chief Justice urges Centre to control media: like giving “lathis to policemen” or “putting up barricades”

In controversial remarks to the government counsel while hearing petitions alleging biased and hateful coverage by media, prejudicial to the revivalist Tablighi Jamaat and Muslim, the Chief Justice has again urged the Centre to find ways to control reportage. “Control over certain kinds of news which agitate people to violence and riots is a law and order problem. Preventing it is as powerful as putting up barricades. Preventing instigation is as important as providing lathis to policemen,” Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said, as head of a three-judge Bench, to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre. He referred to the mobile internet shutdown on January 26 during the farmers’ tractor rally. The court has been looking at the efficacy of the Cable TV Networks Act 1995 in ‘controlling’ TV news, raising questions about who would be controlled once the government has a court-sanctioned handle.


RBI passes the buck to NPCI

The Reserve Bank of India has told the Supreme Court that it has no responsibility to conduct “audit of members of the United Payments Interface (UPI) ecosystem” and the responsibility to ensure that private firms like Google and WhatsApp comply with norms lies with National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). In its affidavit filed in the top court, RBI also said that matters related to “data privacy and data sharing” are in the domain of the central government. The affidavit, which also sought dismissal of the PIL, was filed in response to a plea for regulation against the misuse of data collected by UPI platforms.


Op-eds you don’t want to miss

  • Nachiket Mor writes that in an environment where, over the last two decades, China, Iran, and Turkey have reduced their people’s out-of-pocket expenditures on health by more than 20 percent on a population-wide basis, India is increasingly being seen as the only large economy which has steadfastly refused to do that. 

  • For the London Review of Books, Skye Arundhati Thomas writes on how opposition to the farm bills provides an opportunity to revise existing welfare, labour and land rights laws in favour of the disenfranchised. Instead, the state is crushing dissent, and refuses to negotiate on equitable terms.

  • The software of policymaking ― processes of dialogue between the government and citizens and among citizens themselves ― is poor, and the software of its democracy is breaking down, too. The government must fix it. Or else, the trust of citizens in its ability to govern well, and democratically, will diminish, warns Arun Maira.


Listen up

India is yet to get over its giddy excitement with the recently completed Test series, which was truly one for the ages. After being written off by all experts post the Adelaide Test (where India recorded its lowest-ever score of 36), India bounced back to win at Melbourne, draw at Sydney and pull off a miracle at the Gabba in Brisbane (where the last time a visiting team won was in 1988). This is an Australian and Indian perspective from Gideon Haigh, senior cricket writer and sports journalist Sharda Ugra.


Watch Out

Murdered journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh’s 59th birthday was marked by human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and her organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace. Author and activist Arundhati Roy held a discussion, ‘Facing the Fanatics’. Kavita Lankesh, filmmaker, screenwriter and Gauri’s sister read her poems. 

https://www.facebook.com/cjpindia/videos/417362872913847/


Halls reopen fully, but Hindi cinema lags

Cinema halls are fully functional now, but Hindi cinema does not have many releases planned. But after the success of Master, there are several movies lined up across languages, particularly Tamil and Telugu. Here’s the non-Hindi movie calendar.


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.