The India Cable: Delhi Police File Case on Greta Thunberg Tweet, Indian Celebs Scramble to Pass ‘Loyalty’ Test

Plus: Twitter refuses to accommodate government, Jamia plea against police attack dismissed, in Jind, Tikait threatens regime change, and strangely, Chauri Chaura centenary to be ‘celebrated’

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
February 4, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

A single tweet from popular singer Rihanna (who has almost 101 million Twitter followers) has drawn a prissy statement from the Ministry of External Affairs, which dismisses it as “sensationalist” (separately, the minister called it a “motivated campaign”, without identifying the motive) and a statement from the Home Minister trashing it as “propaganda”. The US Vice-President’s niece, Meena Harris, foiled attempts to portray it as against India, when the issue is human rights and democracy. And after the expected hissy tweet from Kangana Ranaut, a series of dour tweets from celebrities followed, asking Indians to hang together and resist foreign interference. They are being compared to the scripted messages that hostages are forced to read out (see the Long Cable below), and it is being pointed out that the worst ills of our society are all described as ‘internal affairs’. Domestic violence heads the list ― traditionally, it’s nobody’s business but the perpetrator’s. 

State of play yesterday, via Kajol Srinivasan/@LOLRakshak 

The latest news now is that the Delhi Police has filed a criminal case citing the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s tweets. The charge: "criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity on grounds of religion” for the activists’ toolkit for organising peaceful protests outside India embassies around the world.

The ruling party and its troll armies are earning battle honours as they take the offensive in foreign lands. Over there, the victims don’t suffer the assault in silence like we do. The MP for Leicester East and councillor for Islington has gone public, in gory detail:

Causing shock and awe at the Centre, Twitter has refused to comply with a governmental order to block the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide and 257 URLs related to the farmers’ protests, which are accused of spreading disinformation and fomenting violence, though it has suspended two farmer protest handles  – @tractor2twitr_b and @Tractor2twitr – again. . It is not clear how the hashtag, which is political rhetoric, can spark violence. The Centre has sent a second notice to Twitter, warning of penal consequences under the Information Technology Act. The platform is an intermediary refusing to comply with a government order allegedly to prevent the public from committing cognisable offences, and humans at Twitter can attract seven years’ imprisonment. Since both the government and the ruling party depend heavily on Twitter for public communications, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Recall the dark humorist who goes by the name of Gandhamadan, who highlighted dependencies at the beginning of the farmers’ agitation: 

In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy said that according to Delhi Police, “Gazipur, Chilla, Tikri and Singhu borders of National Capital are blocked by agitating farmers and it is inconvenient to the residents of Delhi and neighbouring States. In any agitation, there is financial loss incurred by people and governments.” Talking of blockade and inconvenience, see this report by NDTV’s Saurabh Shukla from Singhu border. He walked 13 km just to reach the last blockade.

The Home Ministry told Parliament that it is not contemplating an all-India law on inter-faith marriages. Since the police and law and order are state subjects, the Centre cannot legislate. Four BJP-ruled states in north India, UP, MP, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, have brought in stringent laws to criminalise those who change their faith from Hinduism, mostly to get married. Assam and Karnataka will follow suit. 

A court has dismissed the plea of Jamia Millia Islamia University concerning a vicious assault on protesting students in December 2019, for want of official sanction, since the incident occurred as the police supposedly discharged their duties. However, the court observed that disproportionate force may have been used. The university will appeal in a higher court.  

The Prime Minister will inaugurate the Chauri Chaura centenary ‘celebrations’ today. Twenty-two policemen were killed when participants of the Non-Cooperation Movement lost the plot, forcing Mahatma Gandhi to suspend the agitation. There is something worth memorialising in Chauri Chaura, but nothing to ‘celebrate’. The Gandhi Peace Foundation, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Sarva Seva Sangh and the Rashtriya Yuva Sangthan, Wardha, have saluted the farm protests in a statement issued on Martyrs’ Day: “Full credit to the farmers, whom Mahatma Gandhi called ‘father of the universe’, that they have created a new paradigm of peaceful retribution. In spite of all the sad happenings of January 26, they haven’t lost their cool; they haven’t abandoned their peaceful creed.”


India’s democracy backsliding: at #27 in 2014, now #53.

India slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index, according to TheEconomist Intelligence Unit, which said the “democratic backsliding” by authorities and “crackdowns” on civil liberties have led to a further decline in the country’s ranking. “With mounting pressure on India’s democratic norms, India’s global ranking slipped from 27th (in 2014) to 53rd as a result of democratic backsliding” under the current regime,  it said. 

Norway topped the latest Democracy Index report. Of 167 countries, the index classifies 23 countries as full democracies, 52 as flawed democracies, 35 as hybrid regimes and 57 as authoritarian regimes. India is a ”flawed democracy'”. The EIU report said that in India and Thailand, “democratic backsliding by the authorities and crackdowns on civil liberties led to a further decline in their global rankings.” It further alleged that the Narendra Modi-led government has “introduced a religious element to the conceptualisation of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state.”


US State Department objects to internet ban

The US has urged the Modi government to resolve its differences with the farmers over the recently passed agriculture reforms through dialogue, saying that “peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy”. It also signalled concern about internet shutdowns imposed at the farmers’ protest sites to suppress demonstrations, citing the law and order situation. While the government claims that the internet ban has not been extended, there is no internet at Tikri, Singhu or Ghazipur borders, said the protesters. “We recognise that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” a State Department spokesperson said. “In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment.” All this has been conveniently misreported by large sections of Indian media.

And the New York Times evaluates PM Modi’s handling of farmers: As India’s prime minister struggles to quell months of protests by farmers against new market-friendly agriculture laws, critics and analysts see a pattern of curtailing free speech that they fear is sending India down the dangerous path of intolerance.

In its response to other contentious policies — including citizenship laws that discriminate against Muslims, its clampdown on the disputed Kashmir region and the farmers’ protests — Modi’s government has resorted to arrests, stifling of dissenting voices, and blocking of the internet. Groups that track internet freedom say India is slipping


Stage collapses in Jind, farmers hold firm

In the presence of farmer leaders Rakesh Tikait, Gurnam Singh Charuni and Balbir Singh Rajewal, the Jind Khap Mahapanchayat in Haryana adopted five resolutions on Wednesday which demanded repeal of the three agricultural laws, legislation to guarantee minimum support prices, waiving of farmers’ loans, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations and withdrawal of criminal cases registered against farmers in Delhi on January 26. The stage gave away because so many people had climbed onto it but undeterred, Tikait maintained an aggressive tone, saying they had just called for a “bill wapasi” so far, and now could push that to call for a “gaddi wapasi” ― regime change.

In a report about farmers in UP, the BJP is blamed for social discord and agrarian distress in western Uttar Pradesh. And huge crowds gathered at a Mahapanchayat at Dabra tehsil in Gwalior, home district of Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar.  

An MP, Manoj Jha, from the Rashtriya Janata Dal,  recited revolutionary poet Habib Jalib’s Dastoor in the House this morning. (see the full recital by Jalib here


Journalists under attack

As the BBC asks why journalists in India are under attack from the government, the Editors Guild of India’s Media Watch team is running a monthly tracker of journalists under attack from the government for doing their job. It said, “2021 has begun on an ominous note for India’s free press.” The January 2021 tracker has 17 names.


Indians get less for jobs in Gulf after Indian government order

Last week, Saudi Arabia had urged Covid-19 compliance as the incidence of disease rose again. Now, it has suspended all recreational events for 10 days and has banned entry from 20 countries, including India, to contain the spread of Covid-19. It’s a cautionary tale for other countries where caseload is falling.

In September 2020, the Ministry of External Affairs cut minimum wages for migrant workers recruited to six Arab Gulf countries, rolling back important wage reforms that helped secure armies of low-paid migrants decent conditions in the Gulf. Indians are now working longer hours for less pay. 


The Long Cable

Celebrity synchronicity: Patriotism in goose step

Sidharth Bhatia

Move over Rihanna, Akshay Kumar is here. Along with Karan Johar, Ajay Devgn and Ekta Kapoor. With Lata Mangeshkar adding her trilling voice. And Master Blaster Sachin Tendulkar too.

All these stars and celebrities have proudly declared that India will not allow anyone to divide it and that farmers are the ‘backbone’ of the nation, or variations thereof. Each one, with millions of Twitter followers each, has also used the hashtag #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

This outburst of patriotism comes immediately after a statement by the exalted Ministry of External Affairs against “vested interests trying to mobilise international support against India.” By an amazing coincidence, the MEA too used the same hashtags.

The huffy statement by the MEA, which is composed of high-class diplomats who excel in delicate negotiations on issues like nuclear disarmament, came after a viral tweet by international superstar Rihanna ― a straightforward retweet of a CNN story on the shutting down of the Internet in parts of Delhi and Haryana, where farmers are protesting, with the comment, “Why are we not talking about this?” With the hashtag #FarmersProtest, it reached her 100 million followers and was soon trending in several countries, including India. This is the first time in known history that the discreet MEA has commented against a private citizen.

Indian superstars reacted swiftly and in one voice ― literally. Their tweets sounded similar and the hashtags were the same. Perhaps they all conferred in the morning and agreed on how best to express their outrage.

Or, more likely, some shadowy figure sent them a pre-written tweet and ‘urged’ them to send it out from their handles. BJP leaders and the party’s IT cells in different parts of India did the same. The stars were in perfect sync with the government and the BJP. At least one sportsman, the tennis player Somdev Devvarman, bucked the trend:

Indian Twitterati are used to this kind of synchronised tweeting, usually by bots or paid hacks, who famously get Rs 2 per tweet. The question is, why would these top stars do anyone’s bidding, except for paid endorsement of a brand? Why would they just bend their spines so easily and willingly for anyone?

The Indian film fraternity has never been known to stand up and speak boldly on any issue of national importance but in recent years, it has been particularly unctuous towards the government and the Prime Minister. Individually and in groups, stars have met Narendra Modi, posed with him and have taken cheerful selfies. Akshay Kumar interviewed Modi on television before the 2019 elections, and asked penetrating questions on subjects such as the leader’s mango-eating techniques.

Kumar has consciously positioned himself as a flag-waving nationalist, making films on patriotic themes and often playing a Sikh. How the Sikhs in India and overseas, who are supporting the striking farmers wholeheartedly, will now react to his films remains to be seen.

Ajay Devgn has proclaimed that he loves Modi and used to meet him regularly when he was chief minister of Gujarat. Johar has a past record of caving in when criticised, as he did when a local party in Maharashtra attacked him for casting a Pakistani star in his film. Johar made a cringe-worthy video in apology and gave a hefty donation to an Indian army fund.

The stars, living in their bubble, often feel vulnerable. Either they worry about the taxman looking too closely into their affairs or, more worryingly, a sustained troll attack that could affect box office returns or endorsement deals. Aamir Khan found this out when he made a mild remark about his wife saying the family should shift abroad, and a lucrative contract was not renewed.

But not all are so invertebrate. Designer Farah Ali Khan, who is from a film family, tweeted that she was disappointed with the stars. ‘Reel Life Heroes vs Real Life Heroes’, she ended. Some have chosen to remain silent. But the contrast between Hollywood – where Robert de Niro heaped scorn on Trump ― and Bollywood, whose stars bent and then crawled, couldn’t be more glaring.


Reportedly

The Maharashtra government is considering reintroducing paper as a mode of conducting elections, and may introduce a bill during the state assembly’s budget session, which is likely to start in March. Assembly Speaker Nana Patole said he has directed the Uddhav Thackeray government to draft a bill for the reintroduction of ballot paper, to be used along with electronic voting machines. “If the draft is ready, the bill can be introduced in the coming budget session,” the Speaker is reported to have said. Recently, as requested by a public initiative under the chairmanship of Justice Madan B Lokur (Supreme Court, retired) and Wajahat Habibullah (India’s first Chief Information Commissioner) a first report on EVMs under the aegis of the Citizens’ Commission for Elections ― with several eminent citizens ― was released last week. IIT technologists “consulted the best universities in the West and both are alarmed at the present inadequacy of EVMs.” 


Prime Number: 734
The number of doctors who have died due to Covid-19 until February 3, according to the Indian Medical Association. It refutes the government claim in the Rajya Sabha that only 162 doctors have died in the line of duty.  

CAA rules forthcoming, legality remains untested

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, which fast-tracks citizenship of non-Muslims from three Muslim majority countries, came into effect on January 10 last year but no rules were drawn up. Now, the Modi government has informed Parliament that rules are being drafted. The Home Ministry has sought and got more time for framing rules from the Parliamentary Standing Committees on Subordinate Legislation of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. But the constitutionality of this discriminatory law is yet to be decided. 

Polls due in May in West Bengal and Assam are forcing the government’s hand in opposite directions. In Assam, the BJP base does not want it but in West Bengal, the party does. It remains to be seen what the Centre does, eventually. It also told a Parliamentary panel that it has not taken any decision on the roll-out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for the whole country. 


Only in India

For nine hours, a leopard and a dog sat a few feet apart in a locked room, neither making a move. The leopard had chased the stray dog and both had ended up in a bathroom in a farm house in Karnataka, on the fringes of Kidu Reserve Forest. Hearing the noise, the owner locked in both animals together for nine hours. Leopards prey on dogs, but being locked up in a bathroom can be perspective-altering. Finally, the cat made a neat escape, leaving the dog unscathed. 


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • The Finance Commission has largely maintained the status quo in Centre-state ties but new flashpoints have opened up in local body funding, with the commission exceeding its mandate by imposing certain conditions to keep the tap open, writes M Govinda Rao.

  • The Foreign Ministry’s response to Rihanna was proof that while the BJP and its ecosystem could quash domestic support for the protests through the establishment and troll armies, ignoring international censure is not easy, writes Radhika Ramaseshan. 


Listen up

Gandhi’s assassination: All that you didn’t know

An audio series on the conspiracy to kill the Mahatma. Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. Now, on the anniversary which is just past, many fans of the present government were openly celebrating the killing. Of course, the Centre did not report that to Twitter. The Mahatma’s grandson Tushar Gandhi speaks in this set of podcasts. 


Watch Out

Vocal legend Bhimsen Joshi’s birth centenary celebrations begin today. Watch this Films Division production by the lyricist, poet and filmmaker Gulzar. 


Modi’s brother in airport drama

Prime Minister Modi’s brother Prahlad Modi staged a dharna in a plastic chair at Lucknow airport on Wednesday, because the police had detained his supporters in Sultanpur. They were found putting up banners for an event he was to preside over, using pictures of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath without permission. Former owner of a fair price shop in Ahmedabad, Prahlad Modi remains a key member of the All India Fair Price Shop Dealers’ Federation. 


Top view

The morning of the Tractor Rally in Delhi, seen through the eye of the drone: 


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.