The India Cable: Confining Women (for Their Own Good, Apparently), Sanitation Claims Go to Pot

Plus: Covid jab shoulders aside polio drops, Tejas Mk-1A flies to IAF’s aid, Dinanath Batra now hunts Husain and Mughals, MP tops rape rap sheet, farm talks nominee drops out

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 14, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Close on the heels of the first consignment of the Serum Institute’s Covishield vaccine, Bharat Biotech of Hyderabad has shipped its Covaxin to 11 cities. The Centre has reiterated that states have no say in which vaccine they get. Any vaccine maker, including Pfizer Inc, which has sought emergency-use authorisation for its Covid shot in India, must conduct a local “bridging” safety and immunogenicity study to be considered for the national immunisation programme. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine will soon seek emergency use approval in India. However, former Union health secretary K Sujatha Rao points out that neither vaccine approved has data on long-term efficacy, and the rollout plan, while carefully thought out, does not sufficiently consider imbalances in the cold chain. 

On Wednesday, Bhupinder Singh Mann, one of the four ‘experts’ named by the Supreme Court to hold consultations with protesting farmers on the government’s controversial new laws, announced he was “recusing” himself in view of “prevailing sentiments and apprehensions amongst the farm unions and the public in general.”

As another cold snap comes down, Lohri has been celebrated with a radical imagination in Delhi and Punjab. On the outskirts of the capital, protesting farmers made bonfires of one lakh copies of the farm laws which they are protesting against. And all over Punjab, workers of the Aam Aadmi Party followed suit

The Allahabad High Court has made a regressive provision of the Special Marriage Act redundant. It had been mandatory to publish marriage notices inviting objections 30 days before the ceremony. This is now optional, since the court found that it invades privacy and infringes upon the right to choose a life partner freely, without pressure from the state, groups or individuals. The marriage notice is a living legal fossil, a descendant of the marriage banns of UK law. 

But there is such a thing as stopping progress. The government has told the Supreme Court that adultery cannot be decriminalised for all, though a five-judge bench had struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018. The government holds that personnel in the forces, each of which is governed by its own act, constitute a “distinct class”. Under their laws, adultery and homosexuality are instances of indisciplined and inexcusable behaviour in uniform. It’s an intriguing departure from the “one nation, one law” principle of the BJP and RSS, which underlies the abrogation of Article 370. But it’s all about discipline, so beloved of the Right everywhere. 

The national polio immunisation programme, in which children in the age group of 0-5 years are administered polio drops, was deferred “till further notice” by the Centre, citing “unforeseen activities” (the Covid-19 vaccine rollout), but is now rescheduled to January 31. India reported its last polio case exactly a decade ago, but halting the drops programme, which confers group immunity, has implications (see Opeds section below).

A parliamentary panel looking at textbook reform, which would influence the forthcoming National Curriculum Framework for all school textbooks, has heard Dina Nath Batra, promoter of ‘nationalist’ history and Akhand Bharat mapmaker, who had infamously caused Penguin Random House India to cave in and pulp India scholar Wendy Doniger’s book in 2014. Now head of the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, Batra has taken issue with a chapter on MF Husain in a Class 11 Hindi textbook, and a reference to Mughal rulers supporting the repair and maintenance of temples. It is all very dreadful, he says.    

And in a mystifying incident, a burning man has fallen to his death from a highrise in Ahmedabad. It is being treated as a case of accidental death. 


Off the record

The government of India continues to be cagey about sharing information. The Agriculture Ministry has denied an RTI application on details on pre-legislative consultations on the three farm laws, claiming that the matter is sub judice and sharing information would invite contempt of court. On January 11, activist Anjali Bhardwaj, who filed the query, had been told there was “no record” of any consultations. 


Chouhan would restrain women for their protection

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan continues to make outrageous suggestions. On Monday at a programme on crimes against women, he said that a system will be put in place ― a woman leaving home for work would have to register herself at the police station, and she would be tracked for her safety. Equally controversially, he also urged the minimum age for marriage to be raised from 18 to 21 years.

Some have satirically suggested GPS anklets for women, like those used on US convicts on parole. There was anger at the state administration responding by policing women instead of trying to curb perpetrators instead. The National Crime Records Bureau has recorded the highest number of rapes in India in Madhya Pradesh, the worst state in the country for women’s safety, along with Uttar Pradesh. The maximum number of rapes – 5,450, or almost 15 a day – were reported from Madhya Pradesh.


Tejas to beef up IAF strength

The Modi government has approved the procurement of 73 LCA Tejas Mk-1A fighter aircraft and 10 LCA Tejas Mk-1 trainers at the cost of Rs 45,696 crore, along with design and development of infrastructure sanctions worth Rs 1,202 crore. The deal was sanctioned by the Defence Acquisition Council 10 months ago, after being moved by the Defence Minister three years ago. It will help make up the IAF’s depleting fighter squadron strength ― 30 against the authorised 42 ― in the coming years. As a major defence contract is going to an Indian entity, it can be showcased as a Make in India project.  

While the Tejas Mk-1 has already entered the IAF’s service, this version, Tejas Mk-1A, which has additional features, is yet to take flight. Its first flight is planned only by the end of 2022, if there is no slip between cup and lip. The first aircraft is scheduled to enter service in 2024, but HAL currently has a production capacity of only eight planes per year. There are also questions about the utility of the aircraft, when the Chinese have moved to fifth generation fighters.


Sanitation claims go to pot

In late 2019, the Narendra Modi government attempted to delay and then discredit the National Sample Survey, conducted in July-December 2018, which reported that nearly 30% of rural households did not have the claimed sanitation coverage. Administrative data from the Swachh Bharat Mission now claims nearly 100% toilet coverage. But the fifth round of NFHS held in 2019-20 has confirmed the NSSO data trend: in five states, over one-third of the rural population still lack exclusive access to ‘improved’ sanitation for their households. 


The Long Cable

Confining and policing women is not for their security: it is to secure the samaj

Seema Chishti

George Orwell’s bust may have been found at the bottom of a well in his birthplace in Motihari in Bihar, but Indian dialects of Newspeak are doing very well. Consider the manner in which people at the top of the power hierarchy are churning out Orwellian formulas to ‘secure’ Indian women.

On Monday, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh ― which is among the two worst states for crimes against women in India ― unveiled a cracker of a plan to ‘protect’ women: he will get working women to report to the local police station when they leave home, so that they can be perfectly monitored and secured.

This is seriously flawed on multiple counts. The idea that surveillance is somehow a social good and a substitute for enabling safe spaces where women and men can work and live, must be the first to be debunked.

The ‘surveillance as safety’ idea has always held a strong appeal in India, even in the analog era, but now, for a society mesmerized by digital dashboards of all sorts, CCTVs are being peddled as the answer. The capital saw a serious dose of it from the Aam Aadmi Party, which offered surveillance as an election promise. Now, though Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad number among the top ten cities in the world to be surveilled, looking at their crime figures, it is clear that “more CCTV cameras do not necessarily correspond to lower crime rates.” In fact, there is little or no connection.

Chandramukhi Devi, a member of the National Commission of Women, has said that the Anganwadi worker in Badaun in UP who was raped and murdered should not have gone out alone in the evening, or better still, not stepped out at all. Confinement has been the doppelganger of the surveillance-as-security idea. Those advocating that women be confined to their homes for their security should flip through the latest National Crime Records Bureau 2019 data. They would find that the maximum number of crimes against women, a whopping 30% (1.26 lakh, out of 4.05 lakh) were of domestic violence, and not sexual assault by unknown persons.

The bogey of security for women is being used alarmingly to push back against all those things that could make the world a better and safer place for them. It is in those societies where there are limited freedoms, fewer choices and less mobility for women that safety emerges as a concern. Poor social indicators, which reflect the truth that women’s lives are evaluated as being less important, show up directly in the impunity that is on display when crimes are committed against them. Even the limited gains women have made in past decades in terms of literacy, visibility and longevity make those who want the return of the retrogressive ideal of the family-centred society deeply insecure. If women were to start choosing their subjects in school and college, and their life partners, and asserting and discovering themselves, who would fill the water, and bear the brunt of everything that it takes to keep the family going, including chores, care work and a salary?

Patriarchy is marching in lockstep with all other regressions that are in top gear in India at present. Whether it is the new marriage/conversion laws in UP, Uttarakhand and MP, which seek to criminalise women marrying out of the community, putting each of these choices under public and police scrutiny under the garb of ‘securing’ women, or the top court’s outrageous suggestion calling for women at the farmer protests to be sent home, the message is loud and clear ― stay within the confines of homes and communities, or at least be watched over by the police, if you want to be ‘safe’.

Essentially, no bid to ‘secure’ women can be for real if it is thought of as a police exercise or one of confinement. That is about controlling them and ordering a society or samaj, where everyone else too can then be asked to stay in their ordained place. True safety can only be assured by a clear message that women’s lives, right from the womb, are valued. It is no coincidence that women’s safety is worse in places where other social indicators are poor. Valuing women and freeing them from the shackles of patriarchy, caste and other retrogressive hierarchies would yield a world where they would be secure. And men, too.


Reportedly

Vague, arbitrary, unconstitutional, outdated: these are four of nine reasons why journalists would want Section 2(c)(i) of the Contempt of Courts Act to go. The constitutional validity of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, has been challenged in the Karnataka High Court by Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief of Outlook; N Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu and director of The Hindu Publishing Group; Arun Shourie, former editor of The Indian Express and former Union minister; and Prashant Bhushan, senior advocate and noted civil rights activist.

The four petitioners ― all victims of the Contempt of Court Act ― want Section 2(c)(i) to be declared in violation of Articles 19 and 14 of the Constitution of India, and want rules and guidelines to be framed to define the process that superior courts must employ while taking criminal contempt action.


Particle physicist Rohini Godbole awarded French honour

Prof Rohini Godbole a particle physicist from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, has been awarded the Ordre National du Merite by the French government. Félicitations!


India back at the wheel

Road traffic congestion in India’s biggest cities ― Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, and Pune ―  is back to pre-pandemic levels after almost a year of lockdown-induced decline, according to a report by TomTom, the Amsterdam-headquartered satellite navigation pioneer. Despite the drop in congestion levels, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi were second, sixth and eighth respectively of 416 cities globally.


Books behind bars

The special National Investigation Agency court, which is holding a lawyer, journalist and professor among others in the Bhima-Koregaon case, has deigned to allow jailed lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bhardwaj five books a month. Her lawyer’s office had sent her The Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert in November, but it was withheld. On December 30 she, Gautam Navlakha and Dr Hany Babu moved court to ask for newspapers and periodicals in jail. Navlakha has asked for The World of Jeeves and Wooster by PG Wodehouse and Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C Scott. Hany Babu wanted to read A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin.


Deep Dive

The Indian state is three-faced 

India’s new constitutionalism has three distinct yet overlapping manifestations: the ethnic state, the absolute state, and the opaque state, write Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav in this new essay in the Journal of Democracy, January 2021.


Comic arrest, 13 days after

Nearly a fortnight after the arrest of stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui in Indore, Superintendent of Police Vijay Khatri says that he did not crack any jokes about Hindu gods but adds that it “didn’t really matter because he was going to do it.” Khatri praised the Hindu vigilantes who beat him up before he could really start his act at a private space ― led by one Aklavya Singh Gaur, head of the so-called Hindu Rakshak Sangathan and the son of BJP MLA from Indore Malini Gaur ― for being “active and alert”. 


Highway robbery: fuel prices break records again

The price of petrol on Wednesday touched a new high of Rs 84.45 per litre in the national capital following a hike after a five-day hiatus, rising by 25 paise per litre. In Delhi, petrol now costs Rs 84.45 per litre and diesel is priced at Rs 74.63. In Mumbai, petrol is sold for Rs 91.07 a litre and diesel for Rs 81.34. This is the highest ever price of petrol in Delhi, while diesel is at a record high in Mumbai


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Gopalkrishna Gandhi regards the farmers’ movement as a successful satyagraha, and recalls another ― the Champaran movement. Committees were set up to resolve both, but the one established by the Raj 104 years ago included Mahatma Gandhi himself. The government-packed committee now proposed by the Supreme Court offers a poor contrast, and the farmers have prudently rejected it. This is their “indigo moment”.

  • India has suspended the polio immunisation drive to make way for Covid-19 vaccination. T Jacob John, the virologist behind the pulse polio campaign, weighs in on the many risks.

  • Over the past six months, the ripple effect of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced global sport to face up to racism within its institutions and among its people. Goalposts have rightly been shifted, writes Sharda Ugra in The Sydney Morning Herald.


Listen up

Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) discusses the brasstacks of what it takes for the Indian Army to support 50,000-60,000 troops on the LAC in eastern Ladakh, maintaining a winter deployment. He also discusses the challenges faced by soldiers living through the winter and on the various ways the India-China conflict could pan out in 2021, and the strategic implications of the confrontation.


Watch Out

What is it like being a social media influencer in one of the most militarised and least digitally connected places on earth? Wasil is a popular social media influencer who lives in Jammu & Kashmir. Watch him try and work in a place that has pushed India to the top of the list of democracies with the maximum internet shutdowns. 


Hanuma *Vihari*

The spunky Indian cricket team deserves much praise. Hanuma Vihari broke the internet yesterday when he interrupted BJP minister Babul Supriyo’s ill-informed rant about him simply by correcting his spellings. Supriyo had called him ‘Bihari’, and Hanuma slipped in on his timeline and asked him to drop the ‘B’. ‘V’, it was (and indeed, Bihar is believed to be named for its many Buddhist viharas). Ravi Ashwin immediately stuck up for his colleague.

And Kerala’s Mohammed Azharuddeen is in the game ― 100 off 37 balls.

In Mumbai, the sublime goes hand in hand with the ridiculous. The Bombay Municipal Corporation shot off a sealing notice to a banquet hall whose staff had tested positive. It accused the hall of endangering the chief minister, who had attended a wedding there (he shouldn’t have!). But it took it all back, because there are no norms for sealing commercial premises, since infected staff don’t live there. Elsewhere in the city, an app cabbie stole a bike for his girlfriend because he couldn’t afford one. But he had travelled in his cab to steal it, so he was tracked by the app company and caught by the police. By that time, though, he had painted his girlfriend’s name on the bike. Fast work. 


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.