The India Cable: DD World Channel to Counter Global Negativity; In Kejriwal v Singapore, Modi Junks Sovereignty

Plus: Congress seeks to nix top BJP handles, Patanjali researchers behind new DRDO drug, Sunderlal Bahuguna dead, Sinead O’Connor quotes Jiddu Krishnamurti, PUBG to relaunch in India

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 21, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Just days after Tauktae struck India’s west coast, the east coast is on alert for a cyclonic storm, Yaas, which may form over the weekend. A new low pressure area over the Bay of Bengal may intensify into a storm reaching the coast of West Bengal and Odisha by May 26, warned the National Disaster Management Authority. Rough seas are expected in the Bay of Bengal from today. Coastal districts are on alert and fishermen have been asked to return to shore.

Yesterday evening, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spoke out against the recent meeting that the Prime Minister had with chief ministers, and asked her peers to protest at having had to suffer a lecture in silence. She said that the chief ministers are not the PM’s bonded labourers or puppets, victims of “one-way humiliation”. “What is happening is dictatorship, like martial law is going on.” The PM “fled away hiding his face because he had no answer on all these issues.”

“The steady erosion of the Cabinet system of governance, the worsening of federal relationships with the states… the lack of informed consultation with experts and Parliamentary committees, the failure to take the timely advice of expert committees and the absence of effective coordination with state governments have had disastrous consequences…” The Prime Minister is in receipt of yet another open letter from the Constitutional Conduct Group, signed by 116 retired bureaucrats who see the government as a threat to principled governance and democracy.   

The Uttarakhand High Court yesterday criticised the handling of the Char Dham pilgrimage and cited the Mahakumbh congregation, where Covid-19 guidelines were flouted blatantly. “First we make the mistake of Kumbh Mela, then there is Char Dham. Why do we repeatedly cause embarrassment to ourselves?” asked the bench.

The Congress has upped the ante in the matter of the alleged ‘toolkit’ forgery by the BJP. India’s GOP has written to Twitter seeking suspension of the handles of senior BJP leaders JP Nadda, Smriti Irani, Sambit Patra and BL Santosh. It alleged that these leaders are disseminating “forged documents” to target the Congress. Twitter has started marking their tweets as ‘manipulated media’. As the author Sonia Faleiro said, “Misinformation is a challenge globally, but in India, it’s practically baked into the ruling party’s communications.” 

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide free education in Navodaya Vidyalayas to children orphaned by the pandemic. She wrote that the nation must give hope to children and provide them a robust future after their tragedy. 

“The image of (Natasha) Narwal lighting the pyre of her father — who had supported her activism — was a potent reminder of India’s forgotten political prisoners, now languishing behind bars without trial as Covid rips through the population,” reports the Financial Times. The condition of Father Stan Swamy, in custody in the Bhima Koregaon case with Parkinson’s disease, has deteriorated. 

Black fungus disease, which is sweeping across India, attacking immunocompromised Covid-19 patients, is ringing alarm bells the world over. Chipko leader Sunderlal Bahuguna has succumbed to Covid-19 in Rishikesh. Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi, a pioneer in road safety ― his lab’s specifications for motorcycle helmets have saved perhaps millions of lives ― has succumbed to post-Covid complications. He is survived by his wife, the writer and linguist Peggy Mohan, and a daughter. 

The Sri Lankan parliament yesterday passed a controversial Bill on laws governing the China-backed Colombo Port city. This effectively overrules the Opposition which had challenged its provisions, which they said infringed upon national sovereignty, gave the governing commission overarching powers and immunity from Sri Lankan law, and threatened to create a “Chinese enclave”.

China has completed the construction of a strategic highway through the Brahmaputra Canyon, the world’s deepest, close to the Arunachal Pradesh border, ahead of its plan to build a mega-dam over the gorge.

Six months into the farmers’ protest, a joint forum of national trade unions affiliated to the Opposition has given a call to observe May 26, Wednesday next week, as ‘Black Day for Indian Democracy’. They say that it is “time to call a spade a spade”. The unions, including INTUC, AITUC, HMS and CITU, are demanding free vaccines for all, strengthening of the state-run public health system at all levels and immediate help to all unorganised/informal sector workers and the unemployed ― free foodgrains and cash subsidy of Rs 7,500 per month, among other things.

Billionaire Gautam Adani’s fortunes have zoomed during the pandemic, and stock prices of his listed companies soar. He has edged past Chinese tycoon Zhong Shanshan to become the second-richest Asian, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. And Tarun Tejpal has been acquitted of all charges including sexual assault by a Mapusa court in a landmark case defining attitudes to rape culture in India. The victim is expected to appeal.  

The controversy kicked up by the PM putting his mugshot on vaccination certificates rolls on. First, it ran foul of the Model Code of Conduct during the Assembly elections. Now that the PM has lost the plot and states are buying their own vaccines, chief ministers are using their own mugshots. Next, will consumers paying a premium for their vaccines demand to have their pictures on the certificate? Or maybe their cat’s?  


Bombay HC slams Centre for opposing door-to-door vaccination

“We are very much disheartened with the central government… Your officials are completely insensitive. Instead of making elderly people rush to the (vaccination) centres, you (government) must reach out to them,” the Bombay High Court said, slamming the Centre for not starting door-to-door Covid-19 vaccination for senior citizens and specially-abled, bedridden and wheelchair-bound people. The Centre had given the excuse that a door-to-door inoculation drive was not possible due to the probability of wastage of vaccines and adverse reactions.

“Is there any scientific data which shows that because of a particular vaccine [taken at home], a person has developed complications? Where is the data that even a single person has died after taking the vaccine? The expert committee should opine one way or the other. There cannot be any ifs and buts,” the HC said. It noted that in the UK, the AstraZeneca vaccine (branded as Covishield in India) is used in door-to-door vaccination.


Declining vaccinations

The seven-day rolling average of vaccinations in India remained in alarming decline for the seventh day yesterday. The Health Ministry said that only 11.66 lakh people got their jabs, raising concerns about more waves of infection. At 13.42 lakh, the rolling average number of vaccinations was lowest since March 14, when the second wave picked up. The Hindustan Times finds great regional disparity ― 70% or 448 of 639 districts in the census have received only 4-20 doses per 100 population. The National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the government’s advisory board on the vaccine rollout, had only recommended vaccination for those older than 45 years. The decision to open vaccination for all above 18 years of age was political.

The Centre cannot shake off responsibility for the vaccine shortage because of its misguided exports. In February and March, “when the Covid situation seemed under control, the Modi government was happy to claim credit for all exported vaccines, including the ones being sent as part of private contracts. Hence, by their own logic, the administration should be held accountable for all 6.6 crore vaccines exported.”

India’s own vaccine woes notwithstanding, the Modi government may have to find a way to bail its key neighbours out even if it means arranging vaccines for them from abroad. Apart from Nepal and Bangladesh, India’s most solid friend, the Maldives, is in dire need of help. While India has donated Covishield to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, these countries had also signed commercial agreements with the Serum Institute of India. With the spike in India, SII has been unable to honour its commitments and is unlikely to resume exports until the end of this year. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar will be travelling again. To the US this time, May 24-28, and he may meet vaccine makers Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.


Patanjali made case for new DRDO drug, trials incomplete 

The Modi government has unveiled the therapeutic drug 2-DG, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, as a potential game-changer in the fight against Covid-19, but it may remain in Phase-3 trials till August at over two dozen government and private hospitals, involving 220 patients. The third phase trials began in January, while the Phase 2 trials were conducted over a three-month period between June and September last year, involving 110 patients.

While 2-DG has been studied in more than 200 clinical trials globally for the treatment of various cancers, trials to use it as a Covid-19 drug are apparently being done only in India. A strong case for its therapeutic use against Covid-19 was made in a paper last year that had Patanjali Research Institute’s Acharya Balkrishna as the lead author. His co-authors included four others from Patanjali ― Pallavi Thakur, Shivam Singh, Swami Narsingh Dev, Anurag Varshney ― along with Viney Jain ( of the Jain Vishwa Bharati Institute, Rajasthan) and Rakesh Kumar Sharma (Saveetha Institute of Medical and Technical Sciences, Chennai).


Kerala Model 2.0

A government in Kerala has begun its second consecutive innings, for the first time since 1977. The first decision taken by the overhauled cabinet is “to implement a programme to alleviate extreme poverty. It will come into force on August 15. On India’s Independence Day, Kerala will reaffirm the right of its citizens to be poverty-free.” 


The Long Cable

In Singapore v Kejriwal, Modi throws sovereignty to the wind

Siddharth Varadarajan

While there has been a lively international debate over the past few decades on the extent to which ministers and officials in any country can use national sovereignty as a shield against attempts by other countries to prosecute them for wrongdoing, India has traditionally adopted a conservative position even when those crimes involve torture, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Which is why it is surprising that the Narendra Modi government has refused to join issue with Singapore over its threat to prosecute the serving Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, for his tweet on the danger to children posed by what he called the ‘new form of coronavirus in Singapore’. 

Kejriwal’s comment was ill-advised because the variant of concern, B.1.617.2, first originated in India and not Singapore and is already the dominant variant in the country without passengers flying in from Singapore. The city-state quickly clarified the matter and made known its anger by summoning the Indian high commissioner to lodge a protest over the chief minister’s accusation.

The matter ought to have ended there because the ‘national’ labelling of the virus and its mutations is so rampant – Donald Trump started this with the China virus’, then there was the ‘British variant’, ‘Indian variant’ and so on – that it is futile for countries to expect the problem to go away with a demarche.

For some reason, however, Singapore decided to up the ante by getting its high commissioner in Delhi to tell the press that his government was considering the filing of a criminal case against Kejriwal under its domestic Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). This is a draconian law that has been widely criticised for stifling free speech. If convicted for promoting a ‘false statement of fact’, an individual can be jailed for up to five years.

So here was a foreign government threatening an elected public official and constitutional authority in India with prosecution under its domestic law, and under normal circumstances, the sovereignty conscious Ministry of External Affairs would have made its anger known immediately. However, not only did the ministry ignore Singapore’s threat, it refused to comment when reporters asked it for a reaction.

The last time in recent memory that a foreign government accused a serving Indian chief minister of falling on the wrong side of a domestic law was in 2005, when the George W. Bush administration in the United States decided to cancel Narendra Modi’s visa because of the bar its Immigration and Naturalisation Act placed on giving a US visa to a foreign government official who "was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom". 

The US action and the Singapore threat are not strictly comparable because the US merely said its own law prohibited the State Department from giving Modi a visa and did not suggest, even remotely, that the then Gujarat chief minister could be prosecuted in an American court for any offence. Singapore, in contrast, has gone many steps further, saying that it reserved the right to prosecute Kejriwal for his statement.

Though every country, including India, reserves the right to grant or deny visas to whomsoever it pleases, the then Congress-led UPA government chose to protest the US decision on Modi. Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister at the time, made a strong statement in the Rajya Sabha:

“When I came to know of the denial of visa to Shri Modi, yesterday, I immediately instructed our External Affairs Minister to call the US Ambassador and explain to them that we are greatly concerned and we greatly regret the decision that has been taken by the United States Government…. We have observed that this uncalled for decision betrays a lack of sensitivity and due courtesy to an elected authority… Mr. Chairman, Sir, the American Government has also been clearly informed that while we respect their sovereign right to grant or refuse visas to any person, we do not believe that it is appropriate to use allegations or anything less than due process to make a subjective judgment to question a constitutional authority in India.” (emphasis added)

This was the reaction of an India proud of its sovereignty, and of a leader willing to set aside political differences to tell a foreign government that it had no right to treat a constitutional authority in India in this way. 

Now fast forward to 2021. Singapore did not confine itself to saying it would not give a visa to Kejriwal. It has threatened to put an Indian constitutional authority on trial in a court of law. What is more, it added insult to injury by getting its high commissioner to deliver this threat on Indian soil – in New Delhi, the state which Kejriwal is chief minister of.

Apart from Modi’s inability to think as a national leader – putting considerations of party interest and region aside –  another reason for his unwillingness to reprimand Singapore is that his own mishandling of the pandemic has driven him into a corner. He realises he desperately needs the goodwill and support of countries with spare medical and financial resources to bail him out a crisis that is entirely of his own making. When ‘atmanirbhar’ Bharat has already been forced to swallow its pride, why bother about a diplomatic affront to Indian sovereignty. 


Reportedly

As PM Narendra Modi is pummeled in the global press for his inept Covid response, sarkari broadcaster Doordarshan will launch an international channel to tweak the narrative. Modi’s bungling, followed by a disappearing act, continues to dominate headlines across a wide swathe of international publications, news channels and websites like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the London Times, BBC, CNN, ABC, Al Jazeera, The Australian, The Economist, Bloomberg and Reuters. The sarkari broadcaster last week floated an expression of interest for DD International, inviting comments from private players to draft a detailed project report for the new channel. After having founded the fake outlets ‘The Daily Guardian’ and ‘The Australia Today’, is this another opportunity for Modi’s ministers to pretend to share articles from an international platform? And will the channel have a cat picture as a logo and ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’ as its tagline, as India’s answer to criticism in the Lancet did?


India, China at crossroads 

The India-China relationship is at the crossroads and New Delhi cannot think of cooperating with Beijing in other areas as long as tensions continue on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said. The Ministry of External Affairs too said the process of disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops at friction points in the Ladakh sector remains “unfinished” and full restoration of peace and tranquillity in border areas alone can lead to progress in bilateral ties.

India’s mishandled coronavirus crisis threatens plans for a post-pandemic supply chain shift from China, as it has forced many small manufacturers to reduce operations or temporarily close factories. The outbreak is also putting pressure on India’s attempts to entice businesses away from China as part of a global supply chain shift.


Deep Dive

It is 30 years to the day former PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in the middle of an election campaign. The Week magazine has a special issue devoted to it. An anonymous author, ‘A Kindred Spirit’, recalls Rajiv’s focus on technology and panchayati raj, which would alter the very nature of India. Colleagues like Salman Khursheed and Mani Shankar Aiyar also weigh in, and Sam Pitroda says that Rajiv was “lost to lies.” The Rajiv Gandhi assassination was a blind case with no ready leads, writes DR Karthikeyan, who headed the investigation. 


Prime Number: 40,300 
The number of requests made by the Indian government to Facebook for user data in the second half of 2020, of which 37,865 were legal process requests and 2,435 were emergency disclosure requests. This was 13.3% higher than in the January-June 2020 period, when India made 35,560 requests, according to Facebook’s latest Transparency Report. The platform restricted access to 878 items in India during the second half of 2020, in response to directions from the Modi government.

Davinder Singh dismissed

Disgraced Jammu and Kashmir police officer Davinder Singh, who was arrested and chargesheeted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a terror case, was yesterday dismissed from service. Singh was caught ferrying terrorists of the banned Hizbul Mujahideen to Jammu from Kashmir last year.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Aakar Patel writes on how the Modi government had to do just three things, which it did not. It had to take the Covid-19 threat seriously, emphasise responsible behaviour and ensure that no large gatherings were permitted. Second, to use the initial time to prepare and strengthen the health care system in anticipation of more waves; and third, to vaccinate Indians as quickly as possible. 

  • Dilip D’Souza writes that the government’s claim of producing two billion doses by December 2021 seems unrealistic.

  • Himanta Biswa Sarma’s selection as chief minister of Assam has shown that the Modi-Shah combine can be coerced and opens up the possibility of altering the power dynamics within the BJP, writes Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. 

  • Vivek Menezes describes Naga writer Easterine Kire as a quietly irrepressible one-woman cultural renaissance which has pioneered the modern literary culture of Nagaland.

  • Saba Imtiaz writes in fiftytwo.in that to wear the sari in Pakistan today is to recognise its roots in war, trauma, and middle-class liberal guilt, in social mobility, and in the ability to make choices.


Listen up

Samanth Subramanian joins Milan Vaishnav to discuss how the Indian government has mismanaged the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the enduring puzzles about the tragic second wave is that India, the world’s biggest vaccine producer, faces an alarming shortage of vaccines.


Watch Out

K Sujatha Rao, Former Union secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, speaks to Faye D’Souza about how India’s vaccine policy has gone completely wrong.


Over and Out

Nearly eight months after it was banned in the country, the popular online game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is now gearing up for a relaunch. The game-maker offers rewards for those who pre-register.

Political singer Sinead O’Connor was profiled this week by The New York Times. She stunned her fans by popping in a Jiddu Krishnamurti quote, as a reply, in the comments section. “IT IS NO MEASURE OF HEALTH TO BE WELL ADJUSTED TO A PROFOUNDLY SICK SOCIETY.” How appropriate for the times, in India. 


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.