The India Cable: Democratic Decline Noted Internationally; Farewell to Press Freedom

Plus: Vaccination programme resumes amid second wave fears, Jio gained 38% from price war, highest-valued firms except Reliance lost Rs 2.2 lakh crore, govt toolkit exposed in copycat 'blub' tweets

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
March 1, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The DigiPub News India Foundation, the country’s biggest network of digital news portals, has written to Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar and Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad, expressing serious reservations about the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. A wolf in watchdog’s clothing? The Supreme Court seems to be in a tearing hurry to comply. It has stopped sharing links to videoconference hearings via  WhatsApp from today, in view of the new social media regulations. Links will now be shared to lawyers directly via email and SMS.

Much of the excitement around the PSLV-C5 launch was about a satellite that eventually could not be sent into orbit. Sunday’s mission was supposed to carry a satellite from Pixxel India, which promises high-resolution terrestrial imaging of the next generation after Planet Labs, but software issues held it up. Nineteen Brazilian, American and Indian satellites, one of them carrying a picture of Prime Minister Modi and an e-copy of the Bhagavad Gita, did make their way up, up and away. Pixxel will now wait for the next launch window.

Slamming the Centre for unabated fuel price hikes, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said that we have seen centuries by Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar, but now we are seeing a petrol-diesel century. A khap panchayat in Hisar in Haryana will sell milk at Rs 100 a litre from today, in protest against the farm laws and soaring fuel prices.

India faces isolation in the IMF as the G20 has sought a fresh SDR issue. India has opposed poor countries getting a fresh amount of SDR or Special Drawing Rights, reportedly for fear that Pakistan would use the liquidity to fix its economy and continue with asymmetric warfare against India.

The strategic Srinagar-Leh highway was reopened for traffic on Sunday after remaining closed for 58 days due to heavy snowfall, officials said. This is the earliest reopening of the high altitude Zojila pass and also the minimum period of the closure of the road.

Allegations made by a highly educated spouse causing irreparable damage to career and reputation would fall within the realm of mental cruelty and justify grant of divorce, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday, allowing a prayer for divorce by an army officer.


Further waves feared even as vaccination widens

The administration of Covid-19 shots resumed today and while it is free at public hospitals, those over 60 years of age and those above 45 with comorbidities can access private facilities for Rs 250. With a slow but worrying rise in numbers, there is concern that India may have entered a second wave. The country sees a decline in new cases but the active tally has gone up.

Shekhar C Mande, Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), warned that the crisis is far from over, and allowing a “third wave” by lowering the guard is fraught with grave consequences. Renowned writer and oncologist Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee has tried to analyse why some countries like India and Nigeria and other African nations have shown lower numbers than feared earlier, but there are too many unknowns currently for a set of reasons to emerge scientifically.

The controversy and misleading claims about two central ministers promoting Baba Ramdev’s new Coronil remedy refuses to die down. Another reality check shows the extent of the untruths peddled by the yoga guru to sell these pills.


Electioneering begins in earnest in five states

Hectic electioneering in the five states of Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala kicked off over the weekend, after poll dates were announced on Friday. In Assam, the BJP lost an old ally as the Bodo People’s Front went over to the Congress-led Grand Alliance. 

The Left-Congress rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata involved a massive mobilisation, with the Indian Secular Front’s Abbas Siddique emerging as a new and interesting factor in the complex mix of West Bengal’s politics. In a controversial move, the Election Commission removed a top police officer in West Bengal, Jawed Shamim, and replaced him with Jag Mohan. Shamim was state additional director general (law and order), the nodal officer for coordinating with the Election Commission. He had assumed office just three weeks ago, but will now serve as director general (fire services), the post that Jag Mohan held. 

This afternoon, a delegation of the All India Catholic Union (AICU) led by MP Vincent H Pala will petition the Election Commission to reconsider holding polls on April 1 in West Bengal and Assam. It is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.


India’s democratic decline gets international attention

India’s democractic backsliding under the Modi government continues to attract wide attention in respectable sections of the international media. The Washington Post put a question mark on India as a democracy, and the Financial Times put exclamation marks on the renaming of a cricket stadium after Narendra Modi, while The Economist ripped apart several sham police investigations attacking dissidents. Celebrated environment activist and writer Naomi Klein has anchored an investigation about the role of government and big tech in curbing democracy. 


Beijing offers its version of the Ladakh clash

A Chinese major general from the National Defence University has provided Beijing’s version of the border conflict with India, including the clash on June 15, where 20 Indian and four PLA soldiers were killed. 

Amid news of a thaw in relations, Pakistan has arrested 17 Indian fishermen and confiscated three boats for allegedly straying into the country’s territorial waters. Security forces in Jammu and Kashmir are alarmed by the recent arrival in the region of small, magnetic IEDs that have wreaked havoc in Afghanistan. “Sticky bombs”, like small limpet mines which can be attached to vehicles and detonated remotely, have been seized during raids in recent months in the Union Territory.


The Long Cable

Farewell to press freedom

Siddharth Varadarajan

The Modi government’s draconian new Information Technology rules take India where no democratic country in recent years has dared to go before: a place where freedom of the press will be subject to the whims and fancies of bureaucratic star chamber which will have the power to block content published by digital news organisations as well as to demand that they “modify” it or publish an apology for it.

There is no doubt that the burdens being placed on publishers of digital news go far, far beyond the basic restrictions on freedom of speech (and thus freedom of the press) envisaged by Article 19 of the Constitution. That article envisages reasonable restrictions that are grounded in statute and thus justiciable in the first instance, not prohibitions that flow from executive fiat.

The stated rationale for the new rules is the claim that digital news publishers in India are not regulated. This is patent nonsense. Digital publishers are already subject to Article 19 restrictions and the numerous defamation cases filed against them, not to speak of various criminal cases that are mounting against journalists and editors of web portals, are proof of how existing laws are being used (or abused) in order to regulate digital media.

No matter how much the current government may desire it, the Indian constitution does not grant the executive the power to sit in judgment over the suitability of content published by the media. Granting an inter-ministerial committee of bureaucrats, as envisaged by Rules 13 and 14, the power to pass judgment on whether a media platform has responded adequately to grievances raised by members of the public has no basis in law and will amount to killing freedom of the press in India. In essence, the government has weaponised ‘grievances’ and turned it into a deniable tool of official pressure on media independence. In a polarised society like India where political parties play dirty, independent media will be flooded with complaints and grievances that they will be obliged to address, with a government committee as the final arbiter on this process. Worse, the committee can also consider complaints directly referred to it by the government (i.e. by powerful politicians and bureaucrats who may not like media reporting on certain topics) and the Information and Broadcasting secretary has been empowered to block content on an “emergency” basis without even giving the digital media platform a chance to be heard.

The government says it has now created a level playing field but newspapers will not be subjected to these new rules and procedures. Nor will TV channels be subjected these draconian provisions.

Apart from being ultra vires the constitution, the new rules also seem to be in breach of the IT Act itself. The purview of the IT Act, 2000 does not extend to news media. Just to reiterate, existing laws already define the reasonable restrictions on press freedom in India and any reader with a grievance is free to seek a legal remedy provided it falls within the four walls of the “reasonable restrictions” defined by the constitution and 70 years of Indian jurisprudence on them. The media cannot be compelled to address “grievances” that go beyond that Lakshman Rekha.

Finally, the drafting of the rules is so vague that a plain reading of its definition of a digital news publisher would seem to include foreign news organisations running systematic business operations that make their content available in India. It would also appear to include publishers of current affairs blogs if they are based in India and are systematic or “professional” in the way they publish content. Government officials deny any interest in regulating foreign media and small bloggers. But it is the very ambiguity that opens the door to self-censorship and harassment.


Reportedly

A sizeable section of the Congress’ G-23, or the 23 epistolary dissidents led by former leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and former Chief Minister of J&K Ghulam Nabi Azad, held a show of strength in Jammu, raising eyebrows and hackles. They spoke of being inheritors and preservers of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, and spoke of themselves as the Congress family. This venture, which included another ex-Chief Minister, BS Hooda, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Raj Babbar, all in saffron turbans, attracted cold commentary from the Congress, which hoped that they would find the time to campaign in states going to the polls. On Sunday, too, in an elaborate starched white turban, Azad praised Modi for being connected to his “roots”, triggering speculation. Has Sibal registered a party under the name of Sabki Congress?  


People seek probe into MP’s suicide

The suicide of Mohan Delkar, seven-term tribal MP from Dadra and Nagar Haveli, was followed by silence. The suicide note he left behind has not been made public, and the mainstream media is unconcerned. But locals carried out a candlelight march to push the police to investigate the death transparently. Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena asked why those who had raised a hue and cry over Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide are silent now


Jio’s price war gave it 38% market share 

India’s mobile telephony industry is now back at the level of revenues it had enjoyed before the launch of Reliance Jio Infocomm in 2016. But while industry revenues are flat, Jio’s market share has gone up from zero to 38% during this period, data collated by Jefferies India shows. In other words, revenues of all other telecom operators have declined 38%, and the survivors have also suffered a massive cash burn. Bharti Airtel has hung on to its pre-Jio market share of around 31-32%, while Vodafone Idea Ltd’s share has been nearly halved to 21%. A number of other telcos have shut shop.

In March 2017, before Jio started booking revenues, it had said in a presentation to investors that it saw overall industry revenues growing to Rs 3 trillion by the financial year 2020-21. The annual revenue run-rate before Jio’s entry stood at Rs 1.8 trillion.


Prime Number: 2,19,920.71 crore
Nine of the 10 most-valued companies ―  all except Reliance ― lost a whopping Rs 2,19,920.71 crore (or nearly Rs 2.2 lakh crore) of their total market valuation last week, with the Sensex tanking more than 3%. Reliance Industries posted gains, bucking the trend. 

Deep Dive

Organising hate

The Wire has spent the past few months doing what the police have refused to do. They have investigated the Delhi ‘riots’ of February 2020, starting with videos posted by the rioters themselves. They conclude that this was not violence planned by a lone BJP leader who made just one inflammatory speech. Many others had worked on the project in a concerted manner since the second week of December 2019. Mainstream political leaders intersected with the so-called fringe and their dedicated media ecosystem to tap into the wellspring of hate, and it is continuously being put to use to keep the communal pot boiling. Watch this multi-part investigation.

The Caravan has a series on the Delhi riots, exploring how anti-Muslim hate was brewed up and plans were made. The first part is here. In a related investigation, The Reporters’ Collective looks at how aggressive Hindutva groups use the ‘legal system’, along with trolling and doxxing, to harass.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) writes that India’s need to prevent a two-front threat and to be on the right side of the US underlies the sudden decision on a LoC ceasefire. This opens up many possibilities, but Modi’s long-running anti-Pakistan domestic politics can come in the way of a durable peace.

  • Mukul Kesavan writes on the renaming of the Narendra Modi Stadium. Could now we have Info-slip, Wipro-slip and TCS-slip, backward-short Birla, forward-short Tata, mid-Ambani, long-Adani, backward Bajaj (for backward point), silly Bennett Coleman, fine Hinduja and Mallya (for cover), he asks.

  • The new guidelines to regulate digital content give the executive unbridled power without any checks and balances, writes AS Panneerselvan.

  • The battle for same-sex marriage is a fight for civil rights. Sharif D Rangnekar writes that the government affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing same-sex marriage reeks of homophobia.


Listen Up

Hear Amitav Ghosh and new writers from India and Pakistan in this BBC podcast ― India’s Aruni Kashyap and Pakistani writers Awais Khan, Saba Karim Khan and Amna Mufti. 


Watch Out

The trailer of Chiranjeevi Sarja’s film Rajamarthanda has clocked over 1.5 million views on YouTube. Chiranjeevi Sarja died in June, 2020 suddenly after a heart attack. The film was shot before the lockdown.


Blubbering idiots  

Misspelt copycat tweets expose a government toolkit: 

And the President of India is off the red carpet, while the Home Minister is on it:


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.