The India Cable: Expressing Disquiet Isn't Sedition, Says Court; Priya Ramani Didn't Defame MJ Akbar

Plus: India, China lead in pollution deaths, Congress sweeps Punjab local polls, vaccine production outstrips use, Kiran Bedi gets marching orders, Nepal protests about BJP’s cross-border expansionism

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 17, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

Priya Ramani has been acquitted of defamation charges brought against her by former newspaper editor and BJP minister MJ Akbar. Earlier, Akbar was deprived of a ministerial post after allegations of workplace-related sexual harassment were brought against him by a number of women. Ramani herself has accused him of harassment at the Oberoi, Mumbai, in 1993, where she had met him for a job interview. Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey made several important observations while acquitting Ramani. He said that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser… the right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of the right to dignity… a woman has the right to put her grievance even after decades.” 

Production of Covid-19 vaccines far exceeds its use. In the first three weeks of the mass vaccination programme, only 31.45% of Covishield and 11.75% of Covaxin stocks were administered. Demands to put vaccines on the open market could become more vocal. 

While counting continues the Congress sweeps the Punjab local body elections, winning six out of eight municipalities in the state, with a turnout of over 70%. Farmers from Punjab dominated the farmers’ protests in its early weeks. The result will be read as a signal for assembly elections which lie ahead, too. 

A computer science teacher at Arizona State University has no doubt that ‘evidence’ was planted on the computer of rights activist Rona Wilson, jailed for almost three years in the Bhima Koregaon case. Jedidiah Crandall finds it ridiculous that the government has referred to the forensic report as a “distortion”, when its own forensic agencies failed to discover a malware that is easily detected by retail virus scanners. It was also suggested that Wilson’s cloned hard drive was tampered with after the event. An IIT Kanpur teacher has said that this, too, reflects deep ignorance about data forensics.  

Petrol and diesel prices touched new highs on Wednesday after fuel rates were hiked for the ninth consecutive day. As fuel prices touch Rs 100 per litre, the key factor pushing them sky-high are the exorbitant taxes imposed by the Modi government, which account for about 55-60% of what consumers pay at the pump. 

The Enforcement Directorate, the Modi government’s favourite browbeater, has provisionally attached movable properties worth Rs 17.66 crore in the case of Amnesty India.

The BJP will micro-manage its West Bengal poll campaign from the luxury of a five-star hotel — an uncommon choice in the state, which does not favour ostentation. The BJP’s state unit is setting up a “media centre” at Kolkata’s Hotel Hindusthan International (HHI).  

Kiran Bedi has been removed from the post of Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, and Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundarajan has been given additional charge of the Union Territory, which is witnessing upheavals as it heads for polls later this year. The Congress government in Puducherry headed by Chief Minister V Narayanasamy has plunged into a crisis with a minister and another party legislator resigning from their posts. 

The Congress party said that it would build a memorial for the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters who were killed in Assam. Five people lost their lives during the anti-CAA protests in the state in December 2019. The statement came two days after party leader Rahul Gandhi had firmly stated that the Congress would respect the Assam Accord and not implement CAA when elected to office in the state.

India is poised to clear some new investment proposals from China in the coming weeks as frosty relations between the two neighbouring countries thawed amid an easing in border tensions. The specifics are yet unknown and may involve deals in the automobile sector. But all we really, really want to know is: will TikTok be back? 


Expressing disquiet is not sedition 

While the charge of sedition gains popularity with the authorities and its incidence threatens to surge ahead of petty crimes, a Delhi court has said that the law of sedition cannot be invoked to quieten disquiet under the pretence of muzzling miscreants. Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana made the important observation while granting bail to two persons — Devi Lal Burdak and Swaroop Ram — arrested by Delhi police earlier this month for allegedly committing sedition and spreading rumours by posting a fake video on Facebook during the ongoing farmers’ protest. Sedition cases filed dramatically generally fall apart in court ― from 2016 to 2019, the number of cases increased by 160% while the conviction rate fell from 33.3% to 3.3%. 


Covid-19 surges in Maharashtra

Four persons were detected with the South Africa variant of SARS-CoV-2 in India in January, while one tested positive for the Brazil variant in the first week of February, besides the 187 people reported with the UK variant so far. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has asked people to strictly follow government-mandated guidelines on masks and social distancing or be prepared to face another lockdown as the state reported more than 3,000 cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday for the seventh straight day. Three days after being administered a Covid-19 vaccine,an assistant sub-inspector (ASI) of the Chhattisgarh Police died on Monday. A post-mortem was carried out to establish the exact cause of death and a report is awaited. 

The country has so far inoculated over 6.1 million healthcare workers, about 61% of nearly 10 million nationwide due to receive the vaccines, since the vaccination campaign began on January 16. The Health Ministry has set a February 24 deadline for healthcare workers to receive first doses of the vaccines and plans to start the campaign to inoculate people above the age of 50 years in March. Here is a look at other important numbers and data on how the country’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has progressed since its launch a month ago.


On Rajdeep contempt, court in two minds?

The Supreme Court has registered a suo motu criminal contempt case against journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, who has been kept off the screen by his employers at India Today TV since January 26, on a complaint filed by law student Aastha Khurana alleging that some of his tweets scandalized the judiciary. In September 2020, Attorney General KK Venugopal had refused sanction to initiate criminal contempt proceedings on the same complaint. After that, the petitioner filed a fresh petition directly in the Supreme Court on September 21, 2020 which was registered as a suo motu (criminal contempt) case on February 13, 2021.

In a curious turn of events, the Supreme Court clarified late yesterday evening that no suo motu criminal contempt proceedings have been initiated against Rajdeep Sardesai. The status of the case shown on the SC website as SMC(Crl) 2/2021 had been placed “inadvertently” and would be removed. 

The case was registered on the very day that Ranjan Gogoi, a Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the Modi government, who is former Chief Justice of India, said that the country had a “ramshackle judiciary”. “Who goes to the court? You go to the court and regret,” he added, but that statement hasn’t attracted the industrious law student’s attention yet. 


Government shaken by foreign opinion, or stirred?

The Modi government claims that the three farm laws and the farmers’ protests they have triggered are “internal matters” of the country which can not be discussed abroad. But the decision to send a five-page explainer on the subject, as an open letter tweeted by the Indian High Commission to London, to Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe, contradicts its own contention. So did the tweet-storm out of India in the Rihanna case. Has there been a change of heart and policy in the Modi government, or is ‘New India’ rattled by the sharp media coverage abroad (like this BBC news video on the subject)?


Nepal protests against Shah’s expansionism

Nepal has lodged a strong formal protest  over “objectionable remarks” allegedly made by Home Minister Amit Shah on “plans to expand” the ruling BJP into neighbouring countries. According to Kathmandu Post, Nepali Ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya telephoned Arindam Bagchi, Joint Secretary in charge of Nepal and Bhutan at the Ministry of External Affairs, to express displeasure at the statement and seek clarification. The Indian side has said that they will clarify the matter during their regular press meet on Thursday.

Colombo has not yet made public whether or not it has lodged a protest with New Delhi over the remarks made by the Home Minister. India’s relations with Sri Lanka are also going through a difficult phase with the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa recently scrapping a tripartite deal it had inked with New Delhi and Colombo in 2019 to let India and Japan develop and run the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port.


Cairn files to enforce $1.2 bn collection from India

Cairn Energy has filed a case in a US district court to enforce a $1.2 billion arbitration award it won in a tax dispute against India, ratcheting up pressure on the Modi government to pay its dues. In December, an arbitration body awarded the British firm damages of more than $1.2 billion plus interest and costs. The tribunal ruled that India had breached an investment treaty with Britain and said New Delhi was liable to pay. Cairn asked the US court to recognise and confirm the award, including payments due since 2014 and interest compounded semi-annually. 

The case marked a first step in the company’s efforts towards recovering its dues, potentially by seizing Indian assets, if the government did not pay. It was reported last month that Cairn was identifying India’s overseas assets, including bank accounts and even Air India planes or Indian ships, that could be seized in the absence of a settlement.


The Long Cable

No country for young women

Siddharth Varadarajan

How does one explain the police overkill surrounding the farm protest toolkit? By no stretch of imagination could its contents be seen as seditious. A former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired last year, has said this in so many words, and has asked how the police could be ignorant of the apex court’s own rulings on sedition which require violence or a clear nexus with violence. 

Yes, there was violence at the Red Fort on January 26 but how can one connect it to a toolkit prepared more than a week later and which refers to protest actions – all peaceful – on that day under the heading ‘prior actions’. Incredibly, the police claim the violence was “a copycat execution of the action plan” in the toolkit but can’t explain which part of the ‘action plan’ in the toolkit was executed in a ‘copycat’ way or how this plan could have been ‘copied’ a week before it was published!

Other absurdities abound but they need not detain us for it is clear that the sedition conspiracy case has been filed with a purpose: to intimidate and criminalise anyone who stood or stands in solidarity with the farmers’ protest. So far, two young women – Disha Ravi and Nikita Jacob – and a young man, Shantanu Muluk – have come in to the cross-hairs of the police but there will be many, many more before the current hunt for public enemies ends. Earlier too, the government had targeted Ravi’s NGO, Fridays for Future, for its opposition to the government’s environmental policies, with the Delhi Police invoking the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, to temporarily block her website. Now, a harmless chat between Ravi and the Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg where the former expresses her fear of being slapped with the anti-terror law is being cited, ridiculously, as proof of her guilt. 

If anything, the Delhi Police’s behaviour in this case is ‘a copycat execution of the action plan’ it has used before in the Delhi Riots 2020 case, which in turn was a copy of the manner in which the National Investigation Agency has run its scandalous ‘Bhima Koregaon’ investigation.

The common thread running through this action plan is to criminalise solidarity, especially all acts of solidarity and protest by students and young people and especially young women. The Delhi Police has already charged Natasha Narwal, Safoora Zarfar, Devangana Kalita, Ishrat Jahan, Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam and others under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. But beyond these names are hundreds of others who have received police summons for taking part in a protest or just being a member of a WhatsApp group.

The cumulative effect of this official action plan is to make students – and their parents – fearful of what might happen to them if they involve themselves in protests or movements against government policies. In fact, by criminalising WhatsApp exchanges and Zoom conversations, the aim is to ensure India’s young women and men fear even engaging in conversations with each other on subjects that would annoy the government.


Reportedly

Mahakumbh 2021 will start at Haridwar on April 1 and conclude on April 30, 2021. No special trains will be run for the religious congregation, due to the pandemic. The Uttarakhand government has received 1.46 lakh Covid-19 vaccines solely for the event. It had requested 2 lakh more doses for the religious congregation, of which the Modi government granted approval for 1.4 lakh doses, prioritising pilgrims over other citizens.


Delhi Police get NCW notice for Disha Ravi arrest 

A Delhi court has directed Delhi Police to give 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi a copy of the FIR and other documents related to her arrest for sedition, for sharing a document on social media supporting the farmers’ protest. She is allowed to speak to her family for 15 minutes a day. The court also permitted her to get warm clothes, masks and books.

Students protested outside the Delhi Police headquarters demanding the release of Ravi. The Delhi Commission for Women has issued a notice to Delhi Police seeking details of flagrant procedural irregularities in her arrest. 


Prime Number: 0.7%
The growth rate of India’s GDP for the October-December quarter, as estimated by Icra Ratings. The economy contracted almost by a fourth in the June quarter and by 7.5% in the September quarter in the current fiscal. Even as recovery is underway, official estimates peg the FY21 contraction at 7.7%. The country’s economic growth was on a downward spiral for over three years until it went into contraction mode.

Deep dive

A new study by scientists from Harvard University, University College London and other institutions, published in the journal Environmental Research, says that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal, diesel and petrol. It found that air pollution resulting from fossil fuel use is responsible for one in five deaths worldwide. The highest rates of deaths from fossil fuels are in China and India. In China, premature mortality due to fossil fuel burning and the resultant toxic air stands at 3.91 million. 

In India, the number of deaths is 2.46 million a year. A breakdown of statewise data from India shows that Uttar Pradesh (471,546 deaths) and Bihar (288,821 deaths) were the most severely affected in terms of excess deaths resulting from fossil fuel pollution among those aged 14 years and above.


Princess Latifa’s videos from ‘villa jail’ 

Princess Latifa Al Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler who tried to flee the country in 2018, later sent secret video messages to friends accusing her father of holding her “hostage” as she feared for her life. In footage shared with BBC Panorama, she says commandos drugged her as she fled by boat and flew her back to detention. Alleging torture and forced captivity, the princess had fled her home country in February 2018, via an inflatable boat and jet ski to international waters where she moved to a US flagged yacht. 

Her boat was in Indian waters 30 miles off the coast of Goa when UAE commandos launched a military operation, allegedly with Indian approval. Latifa’s videos to the BBC suggest that she fought back against the soldiers taking her off the boat, “kicking and fighting” and biting an Emirati commando’s arm until he screamed. After being tranquillised, she lost consciousness as she was being carried to a private jet, and didn’t wake up until it landed in Dubai.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • On the Ladakh disengagement between India and China, Sushant Singh (a contributor to The India Cable) calls out the political choice made by the Modi government and the strategic consequences it must now deal with.

  • Asking volunteers to secretly or anonymously spy on fellow citizens, become de-facto vigilantes and help in law-enforcement without any accountability, would lead to greater distrust and fear, destroying the very foundations of our democracy, writes Ajit Ranade.

  • Annie Zaidi writes that identifying wilful peddlers of disinformation may not be enough to reverse the gains of post-truth, or re-establish media credibility. The confrontational, high-visibility tactics by critics within the truth trade may be the last stand in defence of the people’s grasp on reality.

  • If disengagement leads to a border pact, the deal is prudent, but if Beijing uses it as a tactical pause, then New Delhi may regret the concessions it has made, argues C Uday Bhaskar.

  • The unfortunate accusations against Wasim Jaffer have injected toxicity into Indian cricket which will corrode its very roots, writes Sharda Ugra.


Listen up

Rajit Hoskote and Prem Chandavarkar examine the impact of mass media on culture, pedagogy and reason. Facilitated by the internet, presented on mass media and accessed through today’s methods of wide dissemination, it makes us think about the meaning of public engagement.


Watch Out

Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon speaks to Karan Thapar about the ongoing disengagement in Ladakh, India-China relations, the neighbourhood, the Biden administration and more.


Ad finitum

Tuesday’s New York Times had a full page advertisement about the farmers’ protests in India, signed by nearly 75 organisations, including Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based advocacy group. Will the Modi government respond with a full page advertisement in Panchajanya? After Rihanna and other influential global voices tweeted in support of the farmers’ protest, it had marshalled and paraded Indian celebrities online. But of course, local isn’t quite the same as global ― its influence is finite. 


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.